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Building a Digital Ark

4 minute read

Imagine the size of the ark that a modern-day Noah would need if he wanted to preserve the planet’s 6,000 threatened species of animals, plus some 33,000 similarly imperiled plants. Then add to them the untold millions — perhaps hundreds of millions — of other fauna and flora species that live on the earth. Such a vessel would have to be as big as, well, the planet itself.

But just such a record of the natural world — a collection of images, sounds and words of and about living things, dubbed ARKive — is being assembled in the English city of Bristol by the Wildscreen Trust, an educational charity concerned with conserving and studying nature. While the trust gathers the contents, the “digital ark” itself is being built by HP Labs Bristol, Hewlett-Packard’s main European research facility. This comprehensive website is meant to be a digital museum of plants and animals that can be used for centuries by primary-school children and postdoctoral researchers alike.

The idea for ARKive began germinating nearly 20 years ago in the mind of Wildscreen’s founder, Christopher Parsons, who wanted to bring together in one global database images and recordings of the world’s endangered species. Parsons, who has spent more than four decades in wildlife-related media work, was clear about his vision, but the technology of the day was inadequate. Now, thanks to spectacular advances of the Internet and a major commitment from HP Labs, Parsons’ dream is taking shape.

“This project will give HP Labs the chance to demonstrate the power of digital technologies and the Internet to shape the future — for the good of science, education and research,” according to the Bristol labs director, David Dack. The company is providing $1 million for servers, storage and network installations, as well as access to a five-member core research team for two years. ARKive (www.arkive.org.uk) is to be a complete repository of still photos, video, film, sound recordings and text eventually encompassing all known plant and animal life above microbial level.

“We plan to use the power of the Web to target the presentation of material to different audiences,” says Andrew Nelson, HP’s research and development project manager. Such “layering” will mean, for example, that the children’s level won’t contain film of a lion devouring a gazelle. Wildlife experts will guide researchers in the selection of the material, which will then be digitized, stored and made available freely via the Internet.

“We’ll just hold digital copies,” says Harriet Nimmo of Wildscreen, ARKive’s development manager. “Copyright remains with the owner.” Ownership of the audio-visual content — garnered from film and television companies, picture libraries, museum archives, private collections and other sources — will be made clear on the site and electronically marked to prevent commercial use without payment.

As the project evolves, the Hewlett-Packard team faces huge technical challenges, including how to provide streaming video delivery of so much high-quality mixed media and the introduction of new “e-services” for managing the data. The storage requirement is 1 petabyte — a quadrillion bytes, or 100,000 times that of a typical personal computer — and growing. Perhaps the biggest software challenge, though, is “future-proofing” what will be stored. “We need systems that will migrate forward,” says Nelson. “The material must be accessible across systems and over time” — perhaps over centuries.

While the technical experts focus on the design of ever-newer versions of the ARKive system, the Wildscreen staff is seeking funds to carry out its work. A $2.3 million grant from Britain’s Heritage Lottery Fund has launched the first strand of the project — archiving up to 2,000 U.K. plants and animals. And, with $15,000, the Department of the Environment is funding a pilot identification guide to coral species listed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

As species vanish, says Nimmo, “we’re burning the books in the library of life before they’ve even been cataloged.” ARKive intends to ensure that, if the worst happens, lost species will at least leave a digital trace for future generations.

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