Using digital data for greater biodiversity

Research project funded: Leibniz Universität Hannover and TIB evaluate historical scientific articles on species occurrence

The World Biodiversity Council estimates that almost one million plant and animal species are threatened with extinction. However, precise statistics are missing, so the situation could be even worse. Improving the data basis by evaluating articles in scientific journals is the aim of the "Digispezies" project at Leibniz Universität Hannover (LUH), which has now received a funding commitment of 785,800 Euros from the Lower Saxony Ministry of Science and Culture. The funding is provided from the "Niedersächsisches Vorab" of the VolkswagenStiftung. A total of eight research projects on digitisation in the field of natural sciences will be funded throughout the state with around seven million Euros for the next three years.

The "Digispezies" project is dealing with the digitisation of records of the occurrence of plant and animal species to document the extent of biodiversity loss. The LUH works on an interdisciplinary basis: applicants are Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Nejdl (L3S Research Center), Prof. Dr. Hansjörg Küster (Institute of Geobotany) and Prof. Dr. Sören Auer (TIB – Leibniz Information Centre for Science and Technology).

Digitisation of one of the world's largest historical collections on plant occurrence records

LUH's Institute of Geobotany houses one of the world's largest historical collections of species occurrences since the 19th century. This includes the extensive collection of evidence of occurrence from the estate of the German botanist and plant sociologist Reinhold Tüxen. Among other things, this includes around 100,000 printed articles with millions of data points on plant distribution, mainly from Lower Saxony and neighbouring areas.

The project team wants to digitise these scientific articles and extract tables documenting the occurrence of plant species in different places and at different times. These data sets can then be combined with other data sets provided, for example, by the Federal Agency for Nature Conservation on the distribution of species. "Extracting and interpreting the diversity of tables contained in such articles is a major challenge. In addition, the geobotanical vocabulary, which has changed over the years, needs to be compared," explains Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Nejdl from the L3S Research Center. The extracted data should be made available as knowledge graphs for further research. "In this way we are making an important contribution to the conservation of biodiversity in Lower Saxony and Germany," says Nejdl.

TIB ensures that the data is visualised in knowledge graphs

The TIB's task in this research project is the digitisation of offprints as well as the documentation of proofs of occurrence in knowledge graphs. This includes the development of a data model for occurrence data in the so-called Open Research Knowledge Graph (ORKG), which considers established scientific data standards in the field of biodiversity. The project partners will then – based on the developed model – retrieve and interpret tables from the publications in order to provide the TIB with the data contained in the tables in a way compatible with the model. In a next step, these processed data will be imported into the ORKG and a web portal will be developed via which researchers, institutions and interested parties can access the project-specific data in the ORKG.

The historical evidence of occurrence contained in the collection is of great importance, especially for research on climate change and biodiversity loss, as the data available for the period covered by the collection is very limited.