Photo: Eddy Van 3000 via FlickrA tip from Canis sent me to the Encyclopedia of Life, which came online last week. I posted on this project about nine months ago. I was skeptical that it would amount to much back then, so I was curious to see if I had missed the mark (as usual). I typed in a bunch of species and found nothing but placeholders for them. The site is still an empty shell, about 99.999 percent short of its goal. They have the categories in place, ready for armies of professional, hand-selected curators with nothing better to do than volunteer their free time to fill in the information.

Yes, I’m still skeptical. The whole idea behind Wikipedia is bottom-up data acquisition. In a sense, it is analogous to a free market: iterative and imperfect, but productive and useful. If every article in Wikipedia had to pass muster from an appointed expert on each subject, there would be no Wikipedia. The EOL will never see the success of Wikipedia with its present top-down, command-and-control structure.

To make the progress needed to attract the public’s attention, at some point they will have to stop micromanaging the data input and let the millions of potential contributors get busy. The priesthood is going to have to open its doors. As it is presently organized, the project looks more like a politburo than an information market. If they would just let us upload them, there would already be dozens of photos of various species from me and probably millions of others. But no. Their plan for later this year is to allow the ignorant hordes to upload stuff for consideration by an anointed curator … dun dun dunnnn. Take a look at the insect photos at the Flickr Commons site.

Later in 2008 we will set up a mechanism for anyone to contribute species-related content (photos, drawings, text, video, etc.). The curator(s) of the species will consider the submissions for incorporation into the authenticated species page.

First, they will need to find these thousands of curators willing to volunteer inordinate amounts of time. Next, they will need to find millions of contributors willing to take the time to upload stuff without any assurance that it will ever be reviewed, edited, or displayed. It’s just like writing a letter to The New York Times — why would you bother?

It wouldn’t matter if I uploaded what I thought was a photo of an eastern painted turtle that turned out to be wrong. It would still most likely be a painted turtle. It wouldn’t matter if it were a crappy photo. Someone with a better photo would just be motivated to replace mine with a better one with his or her name on it. There would at least be a picture for people to look at. What they need is some kind of code to indicate whether or not the post has a curator’s blessing and what level of blessing. A fully blessed post could be locked up. An unchecked upload has a higher probability of not being as accurate, and everybody would know that. It would also be great to have a format for volunteers to follow, such as including a map to indicate where the photo was taken.

I don’t think there will be much to see on that site for decades, and therefore there will be very little public interest (or support) if they don’t get a little less anal about the initial purity of the data. The site is presently generating a lot of hits by the curious, but that will wane pretty quickly because there’s really not much to see. Of course, I could be wrong.