Thousands of organizations around the world are working towards protection of ecosystems, yet the sharing of data is extremely limited and often localized – swathes of information that could be important are unknown, unpublicized and from a global perspective, wasted. The Digital Observatory for Protected Areas (DOPA), developed by the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF), could pave the way for a new era of understanding. It aims to bring together multidisciplinary data allowing researchers and decision-makers the means to assess, monitor and forecast protected areas globally.

The problem till now has been gaining a true understanding of all the factors at work, which requires the collation of data from varying disciplines. While organizations have the means to independently collect data and maintain it, to theorize and develop models, it is often difficult to openly share with others around the world. Effective protection and management of ecosystems call for this information to be shared, allowing the complex relationship between environmental and anthropogenic factors to be more easily studied.

With DOPA, data on species distribution, and other socio-economic indicators are combined with the European Commission's Joint Research Centre's (JRC) remote sensing information in order to generate global environmental maps, alerts and indicators. Its modeling capabilities, and its ability to stretch beyond the boundaries of protected areas allow a greater understanding of the pressures on the ecosystem, identification of ecological corridors, and potential new areas needing protection. The databases are accessible by open web services that allow decision-makers and researchers to prioritize issues, and support fund allocation decisions.

DOPA is already answering questions raised in Nagoya, home for the UN's Convention on Biological Diversity conference in October 2010. Witht strict new targets to be reached by 2020, DOPA is helping to identify if protected areas are really protected, whether they are in the right place, where new protected areas should be located, and whether they are connected.

DOPA is also helping to answer whether funding is targeted in the right place, whether the new areas can cope with climate change, and whether they can be created without generating conflict.

Biodiversity loss is a growing concern. A recent Nature article suggests that we are undergoing the planet's sixth mass extinction and 12% of our planet's land surface is protected, and only 0.5% of the open oceans and 6% of territorial seas. Nearly a quarter of mammals, one-third of amphibians and more than a fifth of plant species now face the threat of extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The existing 130,000 terrestrial protected areas are far from enough to preserve the diversity of life on earth. In actuality, we need to protect at least 17% of terrestrial land, inland water, and 10% of coastal and marine areas. These targets were set out in the Nagoya Strategic Plan and the aim for the 193 signatories (not including USA) is to reach them by 2020. It is an important step at a time when the world's population is set to soon reach 7 billion people, and the implacable demand for resources stretch our natural environment.

To create DOPA, the European Commission's Joint Research Centre worked with the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) which provides a free and open access to online biodiversity data. NASA, the UNEP-World Conservation Monitoring Centre (WCMC), Birdlife International and the UK Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) have also contributed to the development pf DOPA.

View gallery - 2 images