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July 04, 2007

Ignoring the biosphere?

I really should resist the urge to post about documents which I haven't digested fully, but earlier today I saw the announcement of a draft version of a document with the rather intriguing title of An ecological approach to repository and service interactions, by R. John Roberston, Mahendra Mahey and Julie Allinson of the JISC Repositories Research Team.

The report uses the analogy of ecology and ecosystems to "to inform the task of understanding and articulating the interactions between users, repositories, and services and the information environments in which they take place."

In section 5.2, various "scales" or "levels" of ecological system are introduced, namely

  1. organism
  2. population: group of interacting and interbreeding organisms
  3. community: different populations living together and interacting
  4. ecosystem: organisms and their physical and chemical environments together in a particular area
  5. biome: large scale areas of similar vegetation and climatic characteristics
  6. biosphere: thin film on the surface of the Earth in which all life exists, the union of all of the ecosystems

And then a mapping is suggested between these levels and various "levels" of entity related to repositories: a person is an organism; a repository is mapped to a population; a community based around several repositories is a community in the ecological sense; and an information environment (such as the JISC Information Environment) is mapped to an ecosystem.

The authors note their intention to focus on the "organism" to "ecosystem" levels. However, from a very quick skim through, the thing which stands out for me here is the absence (and it was a quick skim, so I may have missed it!) of any reference to the global information system within which repositories (and indeed our other information systems) are operating, i.e. the Web. Following the mapping above, I'd be tempted to suggest that the Web is analogous at least to a "biome" if not even the "biosphere".

The document notes:

it is important to remember that they are a particular localised view of the wider information environment (ecosystem) and will inherit environmental influences from that level.

So, I suppose the question that I found myself asking is: if the levels below the "ecosystem" are influenced by characteristics of the "ecosystem", then aren't all those levels from "organism" to "ecosystem" also influenced by the characteristics of the "biome" and the "biosphere"? And if that is the case, shouldn't we include those levels in such an analysis?

However, as I think Andy has suggested in various earlier posts, in the digital library and e-learning domains, we've sometimes - not always, but sometimes - made pretty much that mistake: we've developed specifications, and systems based on those specifications, without really taking into account the nature of the Web, and the principles of interaction underpinning the Web. And it may be that those systems "work" within a community that operates according to those principles. But uptake beyond those boundaries has turned out to be limited - perhaps, in part at least, because of those conflicts and contradictions with the more general principles that other communities are following.

Or to pursue the ecology metaphor (and I'm conscious that here I'm probably guilty of using rather loosely some of the concepts and terminology which the authors of the report deploy rather more carefully and precisely!), populations, communities and ecosystems may emerge based on principles of interaction which are to some greater or lesser extent in contradiction with those of the biome or biosphere. If those populations, communities and ecosystems thrive, then maybe the biome or biosphere may itself evolve or adapt to reflect that success. Or alternatively, those populations, communities and ecosystems may grow so far, then reach some sort of crisis point at which the conflict with the constraints of the biome or the biosphere limits any further growth (or even sends them into decline). 

(I was tempted to try to apply that analogy to the current debate around service-oriented and resource-oriented approaches to Web applications, but I think I should leave that as an exercise to the reader!)

In short: don't ignore the biosphere!

P.S. I should add that, in spite of my comments here, the ecology metaphor does seem quite a compelling and useful one, and the report looks like a stimulating read.


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Hi Pete,

Thank you for the feedback

About the biosphere...

The short version: The influences of things going on at the larger scales that parallel the biome or biosphere level (e.g. the web) show up within a given ecosystem as environmental factors.

The longer one: we've considered an ecosystem to be the largest scale at which it is realistic to think about the group of entities or the the setting under consideration having purpose or to have the possibility of understanding or 'managing' that grouping.

If I've understood it correctly, this parallels how you might think about a natural ecosystem, for example a river valley. The valley is affected by things going on the biome or biosphere, but they're presented as environmental factors.

We're quite keen to include this sort of 'outside' influence on repository and service ecosystems, as we think it's one of the things that an ecological approach can cope with in a way that an architectural one can't :)



Ah, OK, thanks. Yes, that makes sense.

In which case, I guess I'd suggest including at least some mention of the "Web-ness" of the biosphere as generating environmental factors influencing the ecosystem(s) in which repositories participate.

I see there are some mentions in 5.2.6 of "cultural" examples like the RAE and the Open Access movement, so maybe the Web could be worked in here? As - not sure - an "abiotic factor"? And maybe it merits a mention in the case studies too? (That might be harder to work in, I guess).

I appreciate you do have to draw a line somewhere about how much you try to cover in a relatively short document, but, especially given some of the current debates, it does seem quite a significant "outside influence".

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