The Power of Data

We had a BRAHMS heavy past week after a talk with Matt Lobdell at the Morton Arboretum, one of their primary users in the United States, and a group demonstration of the database run by Denis Filer at the University of Oxford. The Morton Arboretum spans over 1800 acres, and has worked closely with the BRAHMS team to streamline the database for records management, maintenance histories and requests, and tracking seed collection and propagation. Due to their close partnership, a team at the Morton Arboretum is also working to create a internal fieldwork app that interfaces directly with the database. Our discussions about large land management were very interesting. Like all our talks with allied professionals, each institution has different goals and needs and often use the same databases in very different ways.

A great example of this came from talking with Chris Weddell at Historic England, a collection of over 400 historic buildings and landscapes, who uses IrisBG to manage a dozen of these sites across the United Kingdom. As Chris shared, their focus is currently less on biological significance and more on histories, maps, and photographs. While IrisBG has been used by many institutions that spoke highly of its ability to handle taxonomy, Historic England uses many of the cultural and interpretive functions most heavily. Ultimately, they plan to add all their collections to IrisBG to provide a unified home for data and increase the ease of running inter-site analysis.


An example of the way Historic England uses IrisBG (credit: Christopher Weddell)

Tying this all together was our BRAHMS demonstration from Denis, which spanned both the power and the simplicity of a well-used database. Unified storage can return quick answers to simple questions, such as “how many maple trees are in our collection?” as well as breaking down queries to answer more specific questions such as “how many maple trees in our collection died before 2010?” or “when do maple species in our collection begin changing color?” Beyond the first inventory question, these queries can inform more complex questions about the landscape. For instance, by mapping all the dead maples, an arborist could look for indications that the habitat unsuitable, such as being planted near a road that is frequently salted in the winter. Tracking phenology changes like when the leaves are changing color each year is a good indicator of plants’ response to climate change, but can also be used to make tours for visitors, like leaf peepers.  While all these things are difficult to accomplish from hand written notes or by compiling data from many different sources, a well designed database can answer them instantaneously. Denis also spoke to the global biodiversity potential of using a database. For example, his department developed a rarity index for plants, and using data from around the world has begun mapping where these species are occurring and how many are growing to identify areas of critical conservation need.


An portion of the biodiversity index map being created at University of Oxford with BRAHMS.


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