December 19, 2014

Librarians, Researchers Concerned as U.S. Terminates Only National Biodiversity Network

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The National Biological Information Infrastructure (NBII) program and its website will be terminated on January 15. As a result, the United States will no longer have a single, integrated point of access to federal and non-federal biological and biodiversity information.

The NBII program is managed by the U.S. Geological Survey’s (USGS) Biological Informatics Office whose FY12 budget was zeroed out (down from $7 million in FY10 and $3.5 million in FY11).

The NBII integrates biological databases, analytic tools, and 259 applications via various partners in government agencies, academic institutions, non-government organizations and others. By 2010, the number of unique visitors to the NBII’s online sites exceeded 3 million, with users downloading an average of a terabyte of data per month on topics ranging from bald eagles to malformed amphibians and far more.

But the disposition of these resources and their future accessibility is now highly uncertain and a source of concern for researchers and librarians.

“When we consider the scope of global environmental change — from studies of acid rain, climate change, ecological and biological  diversity, stratospheric ozone depletion — we find the need for historical and baseline data and information growing. Termination of the NBII is the wrong direction,” said Frederick W. Stoss, an associate librarian, liaison for biological sciences, geology and mathematics, at the University at Buffalo—SUNY.

“We had something that was really, really good and now we are going to have to recreate it,” said Stoss, who is also a past chair of the American Library Association’s Task Force on the Environment which has supported the activities of the NBII.

Michael T. Frame, chief of the Scientific Data Visualization & Analysis Branch of the USGS, said that the agency has been working with its numerous partners to see how much of the data and how many of the applications can be migrated, and it is posting lists of what will be supported and what will be terminated.

“Government agencies provide a lot of foundational infrastructure and support, and to this community our role is to help set standards so we can interchange data wherever it’s housed,” Frame said. “I think with programs like NBII, and other like it, not being funded  those impacts are going to be felt, maybe not short term but long term for sure,” he said.

Things will definitely be lost, Frame said.

“The partners are picking up some pieces but, in reality, they are not going to have the money to sustain them either,” he said. The NBII program often provided some of the funding for partners’ efforts, he said.

An FAQ on the NBII site states that data.gov, which provides public access to datasets generated by the executive branch, is unlikely to pick up on most of the NBII material since it was generated by state, regional, not-for-profit, academic, and private sector sources.

“Once NBII goes offline, most non-federal data will have to be acquired individually from their sources,” according to the FAQ.

It is also unlikely that the USGS, the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF), or the DataONE initiative of the National Science Foundation will fill the gap.

“It is reasonable to assume that most of these initiatives will not be able to maintain, support, and/or continue the more than 259 applications developed under the NBII Program,” the FAQ reads.

A small number of datasets and applications that were funded by a consortium of organizations that included NBII could possibly continue if new funding sources are located.

“As an information professional, I am deeply concerned that there is no comprehensive plan for archiving the data or technology transfer,” said one electronic resources and reference librarian at a prominent technical library who requested anonymity because she is not authorized to speak on behalf of her institution.

“If our profession doesn’t take an interest in preserving “born-digital” scientific data, well, that’s not in the national interest,” she said. “If the doors were being closed on a national physical library with the books chucked out, there would be an outcry. At least I hope there would be,” she said.

The Web Archiving Team at the Library of Congress (LC) decided this week to archive the site based on a request from the LC’s Science, Technology and Business Division.

“The library’s web archiving program here collects a variety of types of sites for various events, around themes, and sites of interest to our recommending officers, particularly if there is risk of it going away that we know about,” said Abigail Grotke, the web archiving team lead. “ I think this site would fall into that category.”

The LC partners with other organizations to archive .gov domains, and it has a copy of the site’s data that resulted from a 2008 crawl and will soon receive crawl data from an October archiving as well.

“None of these copies is publicly accessible yet but they are being preserved,” Grotke said.

The Internet Archive also has copies in its Wayback Machine.

However, since web technology is way ahead of crawler technology, these archives have little of the dynamism and utility of the live site.

“Particularly with a site as large as nbii.gov is, which appears to link to a variety of other resources, it certainly won’t work the same and users of an archive should not expect the same functionality,” Grotke said.

Regardless, there will no longer be a national biodiversity network in the United States, as was envisioned under the National Information Infrastructure Initiative in the late 1990s. There will no longer be a single place where an interested user — whether a scientist or just a concerned citizen — can go to find biological resources data from vetted sources, and this information will become more difficult to discover and access.

“It presents new challenges for data users and those librarians who guide users to these resources. …. it becomes a logistics nightmare,” Stoss said.

“Some members of ALA have suggested drafting a resolution for presentation to the ALA Council at the upcoming ALA Midwinter Meeting,” Stoss said. “But a resolution from ALA is moot if the terminated NBII shutters its website on January 15.  ALA would be crying over spilt milk,” he said.

One bright spot: the Metadata Clearinghouse, a major access point to data for the biological and ecological communities with nearly 100,000 metadata records, will continue uninterrupted, although its name will change to the USGS Metadata Clearinghouse after January 15.

Access, the quarterly newsletter of USGS Core Science Systems, provides a history of NBII.

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Michael Kelley About Michael Kelley

Michael Kelley is the former Editor-in-Chief, Library Journal.

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