TEN SUCCESS STORIES FROM TEN YEARS OF SUCCESS: The Nordic-Baltic biodiversity community

Year 2022 marks the 10-year anniversary for NeIC. To celebrate this milestone, we will publish ten stories that showcase how NeIC has contributed to developing best-in-class e-infrastructure services beyond national capabilities and enhanced the productivity of research in the Nordic Region.

The Nordic e-Infrastructure Collaboration, also known as NeIC, was established in 2012. NeIC facilitates collaboration on digital infrastructure within the Nordic countries and Estonia by providing experts coming from different countries, organisations and fields opportunities to work together. This Nordic collaboration on digital infrastructure had started already before NeIC was established. Since 2003, the Nordic countries have been collaborating on the Worldwide Large Hadron Collider Computing Grid (WLCG) at CERN, providing research computing and storage for high-energy physicists worldwide. The successful collaboration that started with the services offered by the Nordic Data Grid Facility (NDGF) was after some years expanded into NeIC, which was tasked to run the Nordic WLCG Tier-1 facility, also known as NT1. The initiation of NeIC made it possible to facilitate collaborations to benefit other science areas.

This story focuses on how NeIC has contributed to building and maintaining a biodiversity community in the Nordics. To get a better overview of the picture , we interviewed the manager for our former project DeepDive, Matthias Obst.

Biodiversity: the enormous variety of life on Earth

Biodiversity is a term that refers to the species and ecosystem that occur either locally or globally on this planet. It is both flora and fauna, and even beyond: biodiversity refers to the systems in which all living creatures exist. Preserving and protecting biodiversity is one of the challenges caused by climatic changes, increasing use of land and sea, and habitat and ecosystem destruction that modern societies are facing.

The impacts of biodiversity loss, the narrowing of species and vast changes to ecosystems are rarely seen in only one society or inside only one nation’s borders. Fighting to protect biodiversity should be seen as a joint, cross-border and interdisciplinary effort, same as the fight to reduce carbon emissions.

In the Nordic Council of Ministers’ “Our Vision 2030”, one of the three key elements in making the Nordics the most sustainable and integrated region in the world is working together for a green Nordic Region. Another element, a competitive Nordic Region, includes promoting green growth based on knowledge, innovation, motivation, and digital integration. This is something NeIC is also committed to and has worked for for years. Our way of contributing to a more green and competitive Nordic Region is first and foremost through providing best-in-class e-infrastructure to achieve Nordic research excellence.

A dive into biodiversity informatics

From January 2017 to December 2019, NeIC managed a project called DeepDive. The project’s goal was to explore synergies in e-infrastructure development among the Nordic and Baltic countries and support biodiversity and ecosystem research by establishing common services based on best practice and technical interoperability. DeepDive was led by Matthias Obst from the University of Gothenburg’s Department of Marine Sciences, who has been part of the biodiversity community since it started to form on a Nordic level already in 2013.

– There are many strong ties between research institutes and biological data providers across Nordic borders, so when DeepDive was initiated in 2017, we did not start from scratch. For example, the species information centres of Norway and Sweden have been collaborating for a long time, Obst says.

The Nordic and Baltic Natural History Museums also have a long history of working together as part of the Global Biodiversity Information Facilities (GBIF). Another example Obst points out are the strong links between marine stations which automatically lead to collaborations on marine data services.

– When we started DeepDive, we consolidated these individual collaborations under a regional e-infrastructure network. In this network, we explore generic processes such as increased interoperability between existing services, co-development, and transfer of technology. These services are used to enable research on status and change of biodiversity, for example, how many species live in a certain region or environment, and how species and habitats are changing under human and climate pressures, he explains.

According to Obst, we currently know only approximately 5% of the biological diversity in the ocean. Out of all species discovered, we see that every fourth species is in decline and may be threatened in the near future. The services developed by the biodiversity informatics community help us to study and understand how biodiversity is responding to changes - not only negatively, but also positively, if protective measures are taken.

– Biodiversity research is very similar to medical research: the scientists are the doctors and the environment is the patient. The researchers use the infrastructure services to diagnose the occurring problem, which in this analogy is the disease, and they also study new ones. When a treatment is started, they may follow up on the recovery process; this is called conservation biology. Think about how big the sector of medical diagnostics is in terms of digital infrastructure. Now imagine focusing on 10 million species instead of one.

New doors opened through NeIC participation

DeepDive was to a large extent about exchange of technology and know-how. Obst adds that the project also focused on sociological and educational aspects.

– We fostered personal contacts between developers and invested in training – both among developers and between developers and scientists. This is a very important aspect of any infrastructure network. Another really important point was to learn from the data science community, which was achieved through the close contacts with our NeIC mothership. For generic aspects in data science, such as high-performance computing, data management, artificial intelligence and machine learning, our biodiversity community is not big enough to keep up-to-date, he says.

Obst says NeIC has been instrumental for DeepDive to take over the latest know-how from data science fields.

– I guess the community would not have had many of the goals it had without the support from NeIC. Topics such as distributed and high-performance computing, provenance, machine learning, federated learning, or sensitive data management would be individual attempts at best, while now - thanks to NeIC’s DeepDive project - we see a collective effort in our community to use such big data technologies for research in biodiversity and ecosystems.

After DeepDive

Most activities done within DeepDive continued after the project ended, just in a less formalised way. Many of the personal contacts are still maintained, and some of the members of the community are continuing the work as partners in the EOSC-Nordic project. Today, some of the DeepDive pilots are self-standing systems, like the ”Koster Seafloor Observatory”, and some activities have been swallowed by national infrastructures, such as the online training modules developed in DeepDive. DeepDive, like many other previous NeIC activities, is in the NeIC Affiliate programme.

When it comes to the future, Obst says the community has clear ambitions.

– One of these is to stay closely connected to NeIC and EOSC. One important strategic goal for the next year is to establish seamless connections between our biodiversity data infrastructures and more foundation e-infrastructures for data archiving, high-performance computing, and management. We need to develop our big data services further in collaboration with other data infrastructures, and with our researchers, of course, he says.