Mobilizing taxonomic data: the importance of user-centered design

Through the NSF-Funded "Transforming Taxonomic Interfaces" project, we are working to understand the user interaction and experience needs of taxonomists -- the biologists that organize, describe, classify and name life on earth. With an estimated 8.7 million (rapidly disappearing) species on earth, this is no small task, and no small data. Publishing and mobilizing this semantically rich data is critically important for modern biology, and thus, a key challenge for modern academic publishing.

Traditionally, taxonomists describe their species through semi-structured prose narratives. These descriptions have been traditionally published as paper journal articles or in books (only very recently have the governing nomenclatural bodies begun to accept electronically published papers as “acceptable” species descriptions). This publishing process can take years – sometimes decades. Worse, this data is bound in natural language text, and cannot be easily parsed computationally. A growing number of taxonomists have argued for the use of formal ontologies for species descriptions, thereby making the descriptions machine readable; others have proposed forms of “nanopublications” or “quantum publications”, through which taxonomists could publish small data packages as they are finished, in lieu of entire tomes. However, there are considerable infrastructural and practical barriers to this – notably that formal ontologies can be quite difficult to use.

We believe that much of the labor of using formal ontologies can be reduced through the design of robust, user-centered software interfaces, thereby streamlining the pipeline from data collection to publication. In this poster, we describe our efforts to rapidly prototype user interfaces for working taxonomists, to support efficient and fit-for-use publication of species descriptions and their supporting data. We further argue that user-centered interface design is fundamental to the creation and publication of open data. We present several prototype interfaces, and describe how they would reduce the burden on taxonomists in publishing their data.