Sloan and Google Join a Daunting Effort to Catalog Every Plant Species

A botanical garden-led drive to digitally catalog all 350,000+ known plant species has been chugging along for a few years. Now two funders fixated on sharing knowledge have bought in for almost $2 million. But is that enough? 

Breakthroughs in data collection and storage mean stockpiles of all kinds of digital information are growing and connecting up. One area where the world’s collective knowledge is still highly paper-based and disjointed is the naming and cataloging of plant species. Our sum knowledge of identified species is scattered across encyclopedia-sized books and glued-down specimens, which don't always match up. 

But there’s a huge project in the works to unify all of this information, aligning what we know and compiling it in one peer-reviewed, online database that any researcher or interested party can access with confidence that it’s correct. 

Sound like a weighty task? It is. But it’s caught the eye of a few funders, the latest being the Sloan Foundation and none other than Google. Sloan recently gave $1.2 million to World Flora Online, which is led by four of the world’s leading botanical gardens, and Google committed $600,000 and free cloud storage. 

The recent grants will build momentum, but the effort has actually been underway in some form for more than a decade. It came out of a United Nations mandate for plant conservation, and was formalized in 2012 under the leadership of Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh in the U.K. and the New York Botanical Garden and Missouri Botanical Garden in the U.S.  

Not long after, the project received its first big influx of cash when everyone’s favorite corporation, Monsanto, donated $3 million (you can imagine why the agriculture giant would be interested in a comprehensive plant database). 

This is one of those perfect projects for philanthropy. It’s reminiscent of other efforts to get disjointed collections of information in sync—in particular, one ongoing effort to link up information gleaned from multiple large-scale brain science initiatives.

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For Google, funding World Flora Online fits not only with the company’s mission to store the world’s information, but also with its growing conservation interest. The company has backed both an effort to monitor the world’s forests, and global fishing activity. And Sloan is one of the key funders that has a dedicated program in data research, and exchange of digital knowledge among academics and the public.  

There’s also a strong open science element to this, another super-hot topic in philanthropy right now. Currently, the records that are out there are only accessible in research libraries, or texts guarded by academic publishers. That’s a big obstacle for researchers working in developing countries. For example, New York Botanical Gardens recently received separate funding from Helmsley Charitable Trust to begin cataloging uncharted plant diversity in newly accessible Myanmar. 

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Still, according to a recent article in the International Business Times, the work involved for the database is staggering. NYBG’s staff scientists are digitizing monstrous texts and filing cabinets full of backlogged specimens to be cataloged. It’s not the kind of thing machine learning or a fancy algorithm can solve. The team estimates it needs $8 million total and is shooting for an initial launch in 2020. 

It actually makes Google seem like a bit of a cheapskate on this project, and makes you wonder where the other backers are. Again, it’s the kind of work that screams for philanthropic support. It spans several countries and nonprofit institutions with limited budgets and staffs, but it's a project that could allow flowers to bloom in several different arenas.