Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Mismatched Incentives

In Conservation IT, there's a lot of discussion about the "need for standards." But something about this rings authoritarian and ultimately limited.

Most aggregators and analysts of observation information agree about the imperative for data standards. They are united by their common interest in synthesis, analysis and decision support to address critical questions in natural resources management and conservation. This group recognizes both the unmet need and the missed opportunity in each observation dataset that remains in simple spreadsheet form, digitized but nonetheless disconnected. They are thus motivated to convene and deliberate, producing standards that reflect their interests in the data. They then cajole and/or coerce another group, the observation data collectors and on-the-ground researchers, to go out of their way to conform, convert, reformat, translate, crosswalk, describe and their data then upload it to shared data servers. Yet the benefits to this second group, the producers, are abstract, realized in another place and time and by someone else. Not surprisingly, observation data that is un-described, disconnected and highly variable in format and semantics continues to accumulate, the unfortunate outcome of mismatched incentives. The result is a wealth of information whose potential to inform and direct the understanding, effective management and conservation of natural systems is never realized.

Instead we need to meet the needs of information producers with great data entry, management and analysis tools that embed standards conformance, like the pollen of nieghboring flowers, in the data they produce. That is, only by meeting the needs of the data producers will we achieve standardization at the scale required by data consumers.

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