I wish I could be more enthusiastic about the Encyclopedia of Life project. It’s to be an online encyclopedia with a substantive page dedicated each species on the planet, and it’s endorsed by E.O. Wilson, with sponsorship from some of the most prestigious museums around. It’s a fantastic idea that would be incredibly useful.
But then …
The demonstration pages are beautiful, maybe too beautiful. There’s the promise of a colossal amount of information in each one, although at this point all they’ve got are very pretty but nonfunctional images of what the page will look like — but you can see that the content is not trivial and the organization is detailed. I browsed the FAQ to see how they’re going to do it, and it’s awfully vague. “Mashups” of existing databases? Recruiting sources from existing online collections? They were inspired by Wikipedia? (No, please no…if it’s wikified it will be useless as a source of technical information.) I look at the money they’ve got — $12 million — and the number of species they aim to catalog — 1.8 million — and it just doesn’t add up to me. Aren’t they going to burn through that much money in just paying for the emergency room visits for the brawling systematists fighting over the ontological issues?
I don’t mean to sound so negative, since I think it’s an eminently laudable goal, but I get very, very suspicious when I see all the initial efforts loaded towards building a pretty front end while the complicated core of the project is kept out of focus. I’d be more impressed with something like NCBI Entrez, which, while not as attractive as the EOL mockups, at least starts with the complicated business of integrating multiple databases. I want to see unlovely functionality first, before they try to entice me with a pretty face.
(via John Logsdon)