SBDI is the result of a decades-long process of developing, merging and consolidating Swedish e-infrastructure for biodiversity and ecosystems research. Partly, the process has been inspired by the need to collaborate in building increasingly sophisticated infrastructure. Partly, it has been driven by the increasing importance of the infrastructure in supporting cutting-edge research. The establishment of SBDI in 2021 represents a major achievement in creating a powerful national platform for innovative, interdisciplinary research on biodiversity and ecosystems. How did it all start?
An important step was taken by the formation of the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) in 2001. The initiative was based on a recommendation of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Global Science Forum. Sweden has a strong tradition in biodiversity informatics and was one of the founding members of GBIF. The Swedish Research Council is the Swedish representative in GBIF, and has supported the Swedish GBIF node since it was launched in 2003. The node was one of the first national nodes in GBIF, and it has been hosted from the start by the Swedish Museum of Natural History.
GBIF initially focused on aggregating biodiversity data from around the world and making it easily accessible. The national GBIF nodes supported standardization and mobilization, but depended on other projects and initiatives to develop the infrastructure for digitization, data collection, and maintenance of databases. In Sweden and elsewhere, museums and other providers of natural history collections data were important contributors from the start. Swedish institutions hold a significant proportion of world collections, and collections have always been important GBIF data providers.
The SLU Swedish Species Information Centre (SLU Adb) also became a key provider of GBIF data and supporting infrastructure early on. Established as a permanent unit in 1990 at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU), with support from the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency, it was originally tasked with the production of the Swedish Red List and the databasing needed to collect the underlying information about threatened species. About a decade later, SLU Adb took over the responsibility for “Artportalen”, a citizen-science portal originally developed by Swedish birdwatchers under the name “Svalan”. Artportalen quickly developed into a sophisticated citizen-science biodiversity platform. The coverage expanded to all organism groups, supported by the large Swedish community of amateur naturalists. Artportalen played a key role in making Sweden one the major contributors of data records to GBIF. The SLU Adb also developed Dyntaxa, one of the most complete and well-curated national checklists and taxonomic reference systems.
About a decade after the establishment of GBIF, growing amounts of biodiversity data were accumulating both nationally and internationally. It was clear that more sophisticated analysis and visualization tools were needed to process and make sense of the data. Many research projects also started collecting large amounts of digital biodiversity data, and felt the need to develop more sophisticated systems for managing and sharing these data and associated tools with colleagues.
Responding to these trends, the Swedish Research Council funded a number of biodiversity infrastructure projects initiated by Swedish researchers or monitoring programs. They included the Wireless Remote Animal Monitoring (WRAM) project at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Umeå (SLU Umeå); the Research Infrastructure National Forest Inventory (RINFI), also at SLU Umeå; the databases of the Center for Animal Movement (CAnMove) at Lund University; and the Strategic Environmental Archaeology Database (SEAD) at Umeå University.
There were also international initiatives to develop better integrative analysis and visualization tools for biodiversity data. The European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures (ESFRI) identified this as a priority in their roadmap, which resulted in the launch of the European LifeWatch Research Infrastructure. After an initial preparatory phase, the Swedish Research Council funded perhaps the most ambitious national contribution to LifeWatch, the Swedish LifeWatch (SLW) e-infrastructure consortium, in 2009. The SLW e-infrastructure was coordinated by SLU Adb and involved a large part of the Swedish biodiversity informatics community. It successfully achieved the then novel development and operation of a data federation infrastructure, combining data from most of the Swedish biodiversity data providers for the first time and supplying online query and analysis tools for this joint data layer.
About the same time, the Australian government identified biodiversity informatics infrastructure as a key priority, and launched a major infrastructure initiative, “Atlas of Living Australia” (ALA). The combination of substantial economic backing and effective use of an open-source development strategy resulted in an attractive technical solution for other biodiversity data hubs. National GBIF nodes around the world started adopting the ALA platform, and this bottom-up movement eventually resulted in the formation of the Living Atlases (LA) community and endorsement of the LA platform by the GBIF secretariat.
These developments put Sweden at a crossroads. The SLW project was based on technology developed in Sweden, and overlapped to a considerable extent with functionality in the LA platform. Should Sweden continue developing the SLW infrastructure or join the growing GBIF community coalescing around the LA platform? The question divided the Swedish biodiversity informatics community in two: part of the former SLW consortium supported continued emphasis on the SLW platform, while others formed the Biodiversity Atlas Sweden (BAS) consortium, suggesting that Sweden shift direction and join the LA community. In a key decision in 2017, the Swedish Research Council supported the latter strategy, while emphasizing the need for all key players to work together towards a single national infrastructure, and build as much as possible on what had been already achieved in the SLW consortium.
Much of the platform for SBDI was then created during 2018-2020 by the BAS and SLW infrastructures working together. During this period, a joint BAS-SLW governance organization was put in place, including a joint steering committee, a joint scientific committee, a joint coordination group and a joint technical committee. The two consortium agreements were aligned to facilitate a future merger, and the two consortia established a joint strategic plan for the period 2018–2022.
The BAS and SLW consortia also worked hard on merging SLW tools and services with the Swedish instance of the LA platform. Substantial progress was made towards a common web site and a joint support center. A joint proposal for the formation of SBDI was submitted to the Swedish Research Council in 2019, and in September the same year, the Research Council granted support to SBDI for the period 2021–2024.
With the formation of SBDI, the Swedish biodiversity informatics community stands stronger than ever. Through international collaboration, we are able to provide a more sophisticated technical platform, and a broader range of services than would otherwise have been possible. We also contribute more effectively to moving the international biodiversity informatics infrastructure forward based on our unique national strengths. SBDI is ready to support the biodiversity and ecosystems research community in generating the knowledge that is so urgently needed in addressing the major societal challenges ahead of us.