Communication requires a common language of some kind. Also for data exchange, we need common understanding, on several different levels:
- Computer systems need protocols specifying on how to talk to each other and synchronise databases.
- Database designers need guidelines on how other databases are created and how to create data structures that are compatible or inter-operable.
- On the level of contents, we face probably the greatest challenges: making sure that, if we say the same thing, we refer to the same thing as well.
A first step towards this is to develop standard vocabularies
. But we also need documentation
on how measurements or biological identifications have been made - we need to document the data in our systems, and make sure these metadata
are kept together with the datasets.
Several organisations have been working on guidelines on how to store, exchange and document data. The International Oceanographic Data and Information Exchange (IODE) programme of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) has been very active in developing these standards for marine sciences. Several 'Groups of Experts' operate under the umbrella of IODE, and have formulated guidelines on the management of specific data.
Over the past several years, the Working Group of Marine Data Management (WGMDM) of ICES has worked toward a set of guidelines designed to describe the elements of data and metadata important to the ocean research community. These guidelines are targeted toward physical, chemical and biological data types traditionally collected on oceanographic cruises. Each guideline addresses the data and metadata requirements of a specific data type. Although there is much overlap between guidelines, individual guidelines exist to make the process of selecting the proper one more client-friendly.
The ICES guidelines can be found on http://www.ices.dk/datacentre/guidelines/DataTypeGuidelines/DataTypeGuidelines.asp
The VLIZ is actively involved in the creation of some of these standards. The VLIZ data and information sytems that have been build obviously comply with these international standards.
One major aspect of standardisation is the creation of common vocabularies. Standard terminology is developed in several fields, and VLIZ tries to incorporate, as much as possible, existing efforts. We are, for example, using the ASFA thesaurus, not only for literature but also for describing the expertise of scientists. We use the upper levels of the BODC parameter code hierarchy to describe measurements. This way, our databases will be compatible with other initiatives.
VLIZ is actively involved in creating taxonomic reference lists, to serve as standard vocabulary for biological data systems. Through the EU Network of Excellence 'Marine Biodiversity and Ecosystem Functioning' (MarBEF) we became responsible for managing the 'European Register of Marine Species'; in the mean time, and on the strength of the systems we build for this, we've been invited to manage several other species registers.
Though a standard list of geographical names seems to be a basic requirement for any environmental data system, no such lists seemed to exist for marine sciences. We've taken the initiative to combine several existing reference lists (from IHO, ASFA, FAO and others) to form a basis of a marine gazetteer (website). This will be expanded and serve as the basis to standardise geographical names in our data systems.
We also contributed to several projects where technology was developped to facilitate data exchange. The 'Oceandataportal' project of the Expert Team on Data Management Practices (ETDMP) of JCOMM set up a pilot portal, in which data from different servers were extracted and combined in a single page, to be presented to the end-user. Similarly, the EU 'Marine XML' project developed technology to combine data from different sources and different flavours, and combine it to a single web page.