The TDWG 2013 Annual Conference: my experience as a first timer

The Biodiversity Information Standards group, also known as TDWG, holds an annual conference every year in a different city around the globe.  This year it was held in Florence Italy from October 28th 2013-November 1st 2013.  It was my first opportunity to attend the TDWG conference.   The conference theme was “virtual communities for biodiversity science” which spoke to me of the increasing opportunities in sharing and connecting biodiversity data via the semantic web environment.

I particularly enjoyed the keynote talk by Eric Meyer of the Oxford Internet Institute where researchers study the social implications of the Internet from different domain perspectives.  Meyer explained why science and research are growing more collaborative and computational due to funding, technology, and the growing complexity of tasks.  I also attended the Image Interest Group’s multimedia resources task group where the discussion was on the next steps for the Audubon Core data standard and its recent ratification by the executive committee.  Having been involved in data standards work for the past 10 years with the VRA Core data standard I can appreciate what a huge milestone that is.  I discovered some interesting parallels between the data models of Audubon Core and VRA Core.  For instance, Audubon Core models species which can have one or more multimedia resources (e.g. images, video, audio, etc.) while VRA Core models works (art objects) which can have 1 or more still images (i.e. various views or details of the object).

A symposium on “Semantics and Biodiversity” was very useful to me.  This was a series of three 90 minute sessions of which I was able to attend only the first, related to “Technologies, reasoning, and annotation”  This session presented work on how to prepare Darwin Core encoded data, collection data, and specimen data to be more semantic web ready.  The symposium also included a “Primer on Semantic Technologies” –  a great overview of the practical underpinnings of the semantic web which can often feel very abstract and theoretical.

I was lucky to have had the opportunity not only to attend TDWG but to also to present as part of the symposium “Crafting the future of a global biodiversity library for diverse community’s needs”.  There I talked about the NEH-funded Art of Life project which is an effort to identify and describe the hidden visual images found within the pages of the BHL corpus. I gave an update on the progress of the project, details on the algorithms and schema, and explained the benefits to the biodiversity community.

Even though my experience overall of TDWG was positive I do have some suggestions for the program planners of the conference.  I would recommend providing opportunities for newcomers to ease their way into a new organization.  For example, give overviews or introductory sessions about the standards that TDWG creates and manages.  Many of the data standard discussions were at a very detailed level by folks who have been doing this work for years.  I would also suggest partnering newbies up with folks who have been long time attendees so that they can show them the ropes and give them an understanding of the workings of a fairly complex organizational structure.  They can also help introduce them to other participants.  Lastly, have the leadership provide a breakfast or coffee just for newcomers.  This makes them feel welcome and demonstrates that the leadership recognizes the importance of new voices and ideas for future sustainability of the organization.

I couldn’t imagine a better way to get introduced to TDWG than at a setting as enchanting as Florence Italy! It was a spectacular backdrop for a stimulating conference.   Admittedly it wasn’t always easy to sit through sessions and working group meetings all day long knowing just outside the hotel beckoned Renaissance art masterpieces from Michelangelo’s David to Brunelleschi’s dome for the Duomo.  But I managed to absorb as much of the conference as I could and still squeeze in some time for art, architecture, and the daily gelato.  It was a great experience and I hope to be back at TDWG next year for the conference in Nairobi, Kenya.

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Trish Rose-Sandler is a Data Project Coordinator at the Center for Biodiversity Informatics (CBI) of the Missouri Botanical Garden.