The delivery of computerized information via the internet and other technologies is a vital contribution of the ARS/ BARC systematics programs. Over the past decade the systematics laboratories have invested significant time and resources in developing and deploying information technologies in a wide array of formats for our customers. Projects such as ScaleNet, Bunt Fungi, Trichoderma, Fungi on Plants and Plant Products in the United States On-Line, and others make it possible for users to have instant access to systematic resources in ways that were undreamed of 15 years ago. To date, most of this information has been compiled and made available in small bits and pieces by the researchers themselves with minimal support by technicians or contractors. The demands for research and service placed on these researchers have meant that advances in our ability to develop and deliver information have not met expectations. Given new resources, we stand ready to expand and revolutionize the delivery of information and services to our customers.
We see myriad opportunities along several avenues that can be pursued.
Identification aids and expert systems. One of the most challenging, frustrating, and time consuming activities facing our customers is the ability to make identifications. At the same time, the provision of authoritative identifications is a major component of our systematics programs and the time and resources devoted to this activity take away large chunks of valuable research time. The use of advanced expert system technology and innovative ways of displaying and transmitting character information can increasingly move the ability to make identifications to the users desktop. Several software packages, including at least two authored by ARS researchers, are available. However, the completion of data matrices and the images and other supporting information that make these systems work requires large amounts of research, equipment, and technical support.
Collection resources. The collections owned and maintained by ARS contain a wealth of information that remains largely untapped because of the vast amount of data entry and data checking that must be accomplished before the data can be made publicly available. We have made great progress in getting some collections on-line, but we still have vast collections of plants and animals that are not accessible. Getting those collections on-line will require considerable time and money as outlined in more detail in the accompanying document on collections. One critical issue is the high level of expertise required to review and verify the raw data that are collected. Nomenclatural problems, for example, require an in-depth understanding of the various codes and years of experience and training. While raw data can be valuable in and of itself, without expert intervention much of this data can be misleading or erroneous.
Digital delivery of research results. While the ARS systematics labs have made great strides in the delivery of research results via electronic means, we are still far from realizing the full potential of what new technology has to offer. There is currently a debate about how far systematics should go in moving research to the on-line arena and ARS researchers, as world authorities in systematics methods and theory, should be in the forefront of that debate and the implementation of new strategies. It is almost certain that the next decade will witness a sea of change in the way that systematic research is executed and delivered. The integration of phylogenetics, description, identification systems, and updated nomenclature promise exciting new ways to deliver data but much research remains to be done. Complex interactive systems require complete data matrices which can only be produced by trained experts supported by imaging and information technology specialists. A typical project like that done on fruit flies may require 3-5 years of work with input from several specialists.
In order to fully realize the potential of information technology we need to support our systematics program with a cadre of skilled and trained support professionals with expertise in computers, imaging, nomenclature, collections, and the organisms of interest. Tasks such as capturing images, entering data, checking validity of names should be guided by researchers, but not performed by them. Each laboratory needs to have a permanent core of IT expertise driven by program needs to develop and deploy information resources for our customers and ourselves.
Collections as Information Systems.
ARS collections represent unique resources that, to provide our users with the data they need (e.g. to make accurate plant quarantine decisions, to control plant diseases, or mitigate the damage of invasive species), we must develop as information systems. Vast quantities of information exist in these specimens yet this information is basically inaccessible in its current state. We have an obligation to disseminate this information to other mission-oriented federal agencies such as APHIS and the Forest Service specifically and to a broad-based user community generally. In the future, distributed databases linking specimens-based information, geo-referenced data, and interactive identification systems will serve as foundations for applications extending from genomics to baselines necessary to track environmental change. The power and far reaching influence of systematics and biodiversity informatics will have an impact on biosecurity, trade, conservation, global change, and a myriad of areas of critical significance for agriculture and society.