Online approaches to biodiversity
|Correct citation:||The editors (2002), "Editorial: Online approaches to biodiversity." Biotechnology and Development Monitor, No. 49, p. 2-3.|
Biotechnology as an international issue is undertaken, regulated and experienced by divers stakeholders worldwide. They all develop, collect and distribute data, information and knowledge on biotechnology and its agricultural, environmental and socioeconomic impacts. Bringing all this information together, so a common understanding, should enable us to answer the questions around biotechnology, around food production, and around environmental protection. But is that so?
The sheer amount of information available and the fact that it is structured in very different forms, depending on type and format of the information and on the network from which it stems, makes information management a pressing problem. Several institutions are currently busy with this task, one of them the Clearing-House Mechanism of the Convention on Biological Diversity. As Lorch explains, this initiative is set in a political framework and tries to provide information for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity at the same time as being a tool for facilitating technical and scientific cooperation and capacity building. Other projects are focused on more specific segments and target groups, for example by collecting and providing information about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) that are grown commercially. Louwaars gives an example of these initiatives.
Databases and websites that collect information and link content providers, not only offer valuable tools for retrieving information, but they also make immanent problems in information manage- ment visible. There is a lot of data around, but it only becomes information if first it is accessible, second it meets the needs of the receiver, and third if the receiver can judge its quality and reliability. In an interdisciplinary field, judging the quality of data can become nearly impossible for those fields were one is not an expert. In this situation, the evaluation of information is often delegated to other institutions, groups or individuals that appear trustworthy.
In the scientific community this is traditionally done through the peer review of journals. As the current debate about a scientific article by Quist & Chapela (2001) in Nature about a possible GM contamination of maize in Mexico shows, the authority of these journals is not unquestioned, but they provide a well known process for assessing information.
Currently this traditional role of publishers as a bottleneck in publication is chang- ing. Now it has also become possible for nearly everybody to publish on the internet, independent from publishers, costs and reviewers. The restricting factor becomes access to the internet, the so-called Digital Divide. Even with this restriction, publication via email and internet offers the opportunity to make the gap between established publishers and companies, and resources-poor groups and individuals smaller, and it gives room to publish undesired facts and opinions. But it will not fully even the differences in resources and capacity to distribute publications. The set-up of a weekly or even daily email newsletter for example is cheap to send out, but still expensive in work hours and again restricted by access to the original information. Traditional journals, research institutions, companies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are in general known for their aims, but in the virtual world of internet and mailing lists, the producers of information resources can stay invisible, and it takes time to evaluate the quality and the aim of the information provided.
The internet offers opportunities for information to be translated into knowledge. Creating dynamic virtual groups or 'communities of practice' can foster situations where pure exchange of information is replaced by (multi-disciplinary) creative discussion. This dynamic process of acting on information to create 'knowledge sharing' between group members presents new opportunities for making use of information and enhancing creative ideas. Cabrera describes the example of an online workshop used by governmental officials and scientists from four countries over three continents, to prepare a joint statement for the Sixth Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP6). This case study shows the opportunity that information and communication technologies (ICT) offer, but also the restrictions, like when it comes to the fine-tuning of a text.
Even the use of email highlights differences in access. When information flows faster through the technology, differences between those who are constantly online and those that can only check their email occasionally can result in differences of influence and power. And of course it still excludes those without email, without computers, without electricity, no matter how much relevant information and political will they might have in biotechnology and other issues.
ICT has to be used wisely to keep it on a level where it is beneficial to the biggest possible number of stakeholders, and we have to take into account that there is the danger of losing information and knowledge that is not digitally available.
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