How a biodiversity informatics expert is helping protect Brazil’s plants with Grist’s relational spreadsheets

To conserve a species, you need data about its caretakers

Eduardo Dalcin, Ph.D. works at the Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden Research Institute, which falls under the authority of Brazil’s Ministry of the Environment. One of his many responsibilities is to prospect new technologies that could be applied to biodiversity and conservation problems.

The research institute maintains a master list of over 50,000 Brazilian plants, and performs risk assessments of endangered flora. The list, built between 2005 and 2010, contributed to the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation (GSPC), a 16 point plan adopted by the United Nation’s Convention on Biological Diversity. During that time, the research institute received thousands of spreadsheets from hundreds of taxonomists. Each spreadsheet was exported from different tools and had different naming conventions.

Looking at this massive influx of data, Eduardo saw the opportunity to answer the question, “Who is expert in, and responsible for, which groups of plants?” If he could answer that question, he could have a clearer picture of which plant groups are being studied and looked after by botanists, and which need extra attention. Using the power of Grist’s relational spreadsheet, Eduardo set out to answer that question.

Relating botanists to plants and each other, in a no-code relational spreadsheet

For his first Grist use case, he started compiling a database of expert botanists to better understand in which plant groups Brazil had the greatest expertise. The list contains 900 botanists and their specializations, as well as their educational information. For each expert, Eduardo captures their graduate and post-graduate schools, and their supervisors and students.

Eduardo summarizes this ever-growing database in charts and graphs that let him easily see which universities and schools are graduating the most advanced degree botanists, and in which categories. This is important because in order to hit GSPC targets for all endangered plant groups, the Coordination for Flora and Fungi of Brazil must know of any knowledge gaps that might exist. Eduardo’s charts also summarize botanists by employment and degree type, and other helpful measures.

Taking his data analysis a step further, and using his experience with graph visualization in other projects, Eduardo also assigned special generated codes to the supervisor-student relationships in his database. He exported that data from Grist to Gephi, a graph visualization tool, to create an interactive map of professional expert relationships. This graph gives him a high level view of which professionals in which specialties are contributing the most to Brazil’s botanical knowledge transfer. Eduardo is also using Neo4j, a graph oriented database, to explore the data and its relationships.

Grist is amazing for me because I can gather data from different sources, organize it, and prepare that data to eventually feed another tool, such as Gephi and Neo4j, to do a different analysis. This is a very nice thing.

Eduardo Dalcin

Embedding Grist relational spreadsheets in Brazil’s other conservation efforts

Having had great success with Grist, Eduardo wanted to help others like him adopt the tool. The research institute also hosts The National School of Tropical Botany which offers Ph.D. and Masters courses. Eduardo teaches biodiversity information management at the school, and introduced Grist to his students to help them organize and analyze data from their field work.

Using relational spreadsheets to present post-graduate field work!

People are in their comfort zone using spreadsheets. I am trying to show them that if they spend some time learning a new tool they’ll have more power to do their work and research. I said to one of my students, “You will be very very happy using Grist because you are miserable using Excel!”

Eduardo Dalcin

Eduardo also works regularly with analysts and coordinators at the Ministry of Environment. He is currently using Grist to help the Ministry build a data standard to consolidate data from different sources that will be used for prioritizing conservation actions for plants and animals.

Biodiversity and conservation always motivates me to understand and organize data for analysis to get relevant insights.

Eduardo Dalcin