In mid-May, leaders from some of the top academic and scientific organizations in the world gathered together in Washington, D.C., to announce an unprecedented global initiative. Representing many producers and users of information, participants launched an effort to create the Web-based Encyclopedia of Life—something the scientific and environmental communities have reportedly sought for decades. The epic-sized effort will attempt to document all 1.8 million named species of animals, plants, and other forms of life on Earth—and provide not just written information but, when available, photographs, video, sound, location maps, and other multimedia information for each species.
A project this mammoth will be time-consuming—it’s estimated that it will take 10 years to create Internet pages for all those currently named species plus any new ones to be discovered. Some prestigious organizations are already involved, including the initiators of the project: The Field Museum of Natural History, Harvard University, the Marine Biological Laboratory, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL). Funding for the effort came from a $10 million grant from The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and $2.5 million from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.
The renowned scientist Edward O. Wilson of Harvard University articulated the idea for the Encyclopedia of Life in a widely read essay published in 2003. Wilson’s letter about the encyclopedia in late 2005 to the MacArthur Foundation started the ball rolling. Then, in March 2007, Wilson gave an address at the Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) Conference, in which he wished for the establishment of the Encyclopedia of Life (www.ted.com/index.php/talks/view/id/83).
"I wish that we will work together to help create the key tool that we need to inspire preservation of Earth’s biodiversity: the Encyclopedia of Life," Wilson said at TED. "What excites me is that since I first put forward this idea, science has advanced, technology has moved forward. Today, the practicalities of making this encyclopedia real are within reach as never before."
"The Encyclopedia of Life will provide valuable biodiversity and conservation information to anyone, anywhere, at any time," said James Edwards, current executive secretary of the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, who was officially named executive director of the Encyclopedia of Life. "Through collaboration, we all can increase our appreciation of the immense variety of life, the challenges to it, and ways to conserve biodiversity. The Encyclopedia of Life will ultimately make high-quality, well-organized information available on an unprecedented level. Even five years ago, we could not create such a resource, but advances in technology for searching, annotating, and visualizing information now permit us, indeed mandate us to build the Encyclopedia of Life."
The BHL (http://bhl.si.edu), a consortium of 10 of the world’s largest natural history libraries, holds most of the relevant scientific literature. It will scan and digitize tens of millions of pages of the scientific literature that will offer open access to detailed knowledge. In fact, the BHL now has scanning centers operating in London, Boston, and Washington, D.C., and has scanned the first 1.25 million pages for the encyclopedia.
The Encyclopedia of Life is designed to be used as a tool for both teaching and learning, helping scientists, educators, students, and the community at large gain a better understanding of this planet and all who inhabit it. It is also a collaborative effort based on a wiki model that will bring together or "mash up" content from a variety of sources—there’s already an extensive list of potential contributors at www.eol.org/sources.html. A number of demonstration pages have been posted at www.eol.org/demonstration.html to show the vision of what species pages will look like. The organizers hope to have actual, authenticated species pages available by mid-2008.
The pages will be adjustable to various categories of users—from novice to expert. A primary school student might only see the name of the organism; more advanced students might see the vernacular name, the Latin name, and the nomenclatural and associated information.
Ultimately, the encyclopedia will be available in all major languages as the group coordinates with individuals and organizations to translate the content. Other goals include availability on handheld devices and a personalized experience through a "my eol" feature—this could include stored bookmarks, personalized tagging, notepads, a chat room, and more.
After the TED conference, executives at Avenue A | Razorfish volunteered to help the effort. Working with a number of folks, they produced the wonderful video that is on the Encyclopedia of Life home page, which shows a great visualization of the potential. It’s definitely worth viewing.