Events & Media

April 21, 2016

Data, Please: Heading Off Mass Extinction
In SCIENCE, Bren School ecologist Ben Halpern and co-authors say better data is needed for effective biodiversity conservation

To prevent a new mass extinction of the world’s animal and plant life, scientists need to understand threats to biodiversity, where they occur, and how quickly change is happening. That requires reliable and accessible data.

Ben Halpern
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James Badham,
Bren School Media Liaison
Tel: 805-893-5049

A new study by Bren School professor Benjamin Halpern and his international colleagues reveals an unexpected shortage of such data. According to the authors, key information is lacking on important threats to biodiversity, including invasive species, logging, bush-meat harvesting, and illegal wildlife trade. The researchers’ issue a call for better data in a commentary piece published today in the journal Science.

“I went into this project expecting to find dozens, if not hundreds, of examples of amazing data that could be easily used to understand threats to global biodiversity,” said Halpern, who is also deputy director at UCSB’s National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis. “The drumbeat of news stories about ‘big data’ and the information revolution would have you think we are awash in data. It turns out the reality is the opposite.”

Over the past two years, a consortium of eighteen organizations, including UCSB, the United Nations Environment Program World Conservation Monitoring Center (UNEP-WCMC), the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and BirdLife International, compiled and reviewed nearly three hundred data sets and evaluated them based on five attributes required for conservation assessments. To measure up to the “gold standard,” the data need to be: freely available, up to date, repeated, gathered and presented at appropriate spatial resolution, and validated for accuracy. Only five percent of data sets met all five criteria.

The graphic shows that of 300 data sets analyzed, only 14 met all four "gold standard" criteria, each one of which corresponds with one of the four overlapping ovals and the color-coded label for each. The gold standard is where all four ovals overlap.

“The bottom line is that very few data sets actually meet the basic requirements to be useful,” Halpern explained. “We call these requirements the ‘gold standard,’ but really they are the minimum necessary to get a passing grade.”

Lead author Lucas Joppa of Microsoft Research in Redmond, Washington, said: “We live in the middle of the Information Age but are effectively flying blind when it comes to understanding what is threatening biodiversity around the world.”

In some cases, the data needed for effective conservation policy exist but are not accessible because of associated costs, commercial considerations, or intellectual property arrangements. Agreements between conservation organizations and private companies can help address that. Government initiatives can also help, since many provide free data sets, including several that are relevant to environmental conservation.

The study’s findings stress that the process of filling the data gaps need not start from scratch. Several existing data sets, such as those dealing with invasive species on islands around the world, can be scaled up if adequate resources are made available.

“It’s hard to overstate the value of having comprehensive, high-quality data for assessing the status of biodiversity,” Halpern said. “Without it, we have little idea of the actual status of species, whether threats are increasing or decreasing, whether any of our conservation actions are actually helping, or what kinds of future actions are most likely to be effective.”

The study includes a list of online datasets reviewed by the authors. “We will be working with data providers and conservation organizations to ensure that the number of gold-standard data sets increases and the data are integrated with ongoing efforts around the world,” said Piero Visconti, KR Planetary Boundary Analyst at UNEP-WCMC.