Australia’s biodiversity is open data

Australia’s biodiversity is open data

We spoke with Dr Andre Zerger, director of The Atlas of Living Australia (ALA) which is an “NCRIS” facility hosted by CSIRO, a GovHack national sponsor.

NCRIS stands for National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy. NCRIS is a Government program that funds national research infrastructure. Examples include terrestrial observing systems, integrated marine observing systems, and other things that provide shared research infrastructure.

The Atlas of Living Australia was established about a decade ago, when it was realised that a lot of our biodiversity data sat in individual databases held in museums, collections, and state government departments. Some of the data wasn’t even digitised, it was analog – on sheets of paper. Some of those sheets of paper are centuries old.

The ALA brings all of that data together and makes it available to the Australian research community so that they don’t have to go directly to many different places.

The entry for a “charismatic” mammal

Data are open

“A fundamental principle of the ALA is that the data are open.”

Only data licensed under Creative Commons is accepted for inclusion in the ALA.

“We live and breathe FAIR (findable, accessible, interoperable, reusable) data principles.”

Most of the initial work of the ALA was “mobilising” the digital data into a common format. A global standard data format is used for biodiversity data called Darwin Core.

Biodiversity in Australia

Australia is known as a biodiverse country where many species found here are not found anywhere else and so any loss of species is a loss to the world. There are an estimated 600,000 species of flora and fauna in Australia but it’s estimated that only 150,000 of them have been described.

While the more “charismatic” species, such as mammals are well covered, some species, such as insects, are barely touched in both discovery and description.

Who decides a species?

Despite emerging technologies, fundamental taxonomy is still key to defining a species. An expert human with decades of taxonomic experience of one taxa visually identifies, describes and publishes that description which is accepted as a point of truth.

Humans still play a fundamental role but increasingly technology is supporting that process. Technologies such as eDNA and high resolution imaging is increasingly used.

“Automated methods that rely on artificial intelligence that are trained to detect and describe some parameters of a species can be used but ultimately we heavily rely on experts.”


Biodiversity is declining. In Australia it is estimated that over 100 species have become extinct in the last 200 years and almost 2,000 are listed as threatened or endangered. Causes include invasive species, land clearing, and climate change.

“There is a threat to our eco-systems and hence a threat to our biodiversity that’s very real in Australia.”

Citizen Science contributions

There are people who watch trains, some watch the weather, but observing biodiversity is the dominant activity of citizen scientists around the world.

There are a number of pathways for getting data for the ALA from citizen scientists. ALA supports a product called iNaturalist which has a phone app that lets you take a photograph of a species, which you describe, and that image is sent in and they crowdsource validation of your description. If three other people validate your description it is considered “research grade” and then the photograph, observation, and location becomes part of the iNaturalist database.

New data in iNaturalist is returned to the ALA on a weekly basis.

ALA supports a few dozen citizen science platforms. Bird watchers have their own specialist apps and there are apps for fish, pests, and many more. It’s now much easier to make apps and ALA data flows back to those apps through things like GovHack.

“There is a virtuous circle that is enabled by open data and the power of mobile devices.”


ALA data are publicly available via Application Programming Interfaces (APIs), so working with GovHack competitors was about building awareness about where the APIs live.

Take a look at The Atlas of Living Australia (ALA).

Story by Peter Marks for GovHack