The Information Age Is Failing the World’s Wildlife

Scientists say they have access to only 5 percent of the data needed to help slow the sixth great extinction.
(Photo: Eye Ubiquitous/UIG via Getty Images)
Apr 21, 2016· 3 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

We have just 5 percent of the data needed to preserve the world’s biodiversity.

That’s the conclusion of a study published Thursday in the journal Science that finds we’re going to need a whole lot more data to slow the “sixth great extinction.”

The study, conducted by a team from 18 organizations around the globe, finds that the information available about the world’s biodiversity does not even come close to adequately assessing the risks and threats most species face.

That’s striking in a world where the economy has become increasingly driven by access to data generated by smartphones, credit cards, internet browsing, and almost every other action in people’s daily lives. “It’s not improbable that there are certain companies in the world that know more about an individual consumer than we as a society know about any species on Earth,” said the study’s lead author, Lucas Joppa, who also heads Microsoft Research’s Nature + Computing group. “We call this the information age, but what kind of information are we really talking about? It’s a very narcissistic definition of information and I would argue a very myopic one.”

The impetus for the research came when Joppa and fellow conservationists wanted to create a global database of the threats biodiversity faces globally. “We went looking for the data that’s out there,” he said. “We asked experts and did literature sources. We didn’t even find that much.”

For the study, researchers examined nearly 300 data sets of conservation information from around the world. They found that only 5 percent of those databases met what they called the “gold standard” of conservation data. High-quality data sets, they said, need to be freely available, be less than five years old, show change over time, be of adequate spatial resolution, and if they are based on models, have been tested against existing standards.

The researchers, who have all worked in conservation for years, expected that many data sets would fail to meet the standard, but the 5 percent total surprised them. “I think all of our jaws dropped a little bit,” Joppa said. “It was a cold comfort to see these numbers confirmed.”

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Examples Joppa mentioned of information that narrowly missed meeting the “gold standard” were the Threatened Island Biodiversity Database and the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Global Invasive Species Database. The information in these collections, he said, has been produced by a network of experts but does not yet include all islands and is therefore not globally comprehensive. “However, the data pipeline is already primed and could be rapidly scaled up,” he said.

Joppa said the data gap matters because existing information, not what’s missing, is driving the world’s sustainable development goals under the Convention on Biological Diversity’s 2011–20 strategic plan. The missing data means the plan may not address the correct targets. “I hope this serves as a bit of a wake-up call to international policy and funding communities to understand the limitations of the current status quo,” he said. “Now we can put a stake in the ground around biodiversity-related commitments and say this is where we are and start having that conversation about how we get to where we should be.”

Beyond that, addressing issues such as wildlife trafficking remains a challenge, Joppa said, because we have almost no information about where species are being poached and by whom, let alone how they get to where they are consumed. “There’s no map that I can go to and see what species are being taken and at what rate,” he said. “It makes it hard to come up with policy and to take effective action.” He pointed to pangolins as an example of a species that is disappearing from the wild before biologists even truly understand where they live.

This may seem a bit bleak, but Joppa calls the paper the first part of an ongoing conversation about big data’s role in conserving biodiversity. “Awareness is the first step,” he said. “If you don’t know what the problem is, it’s hard to fix it.” He explained that the next steps will be to promote the best existing data sets while working on solutions to bring other information together. The more that happens, the more insight researchers will be able to glean from it.

That won’t be easy though. “Data sets come from many, many institutions and people in many different formats,” Joppa said. “Even getting them together can be a daunting task, but even more important after that is keeping them updated.”

Still work is already under way to combine some of the data we have and take it to the next level. “This paper is serving as a catalyst for a lot of hopefully influential activities over the next five years,” he noted.

Meanwhile, he added, the data we do have still serves an important purpose. “We can use what we do know to take action now,” Joppa said.

That might not be as much action as we could conduct if animals all carried their own credit cards and smartphones, but it’s a start.