Friday, January 29, 2016

Developing a Plant Phenology Ontology

Posted by Amanda Gallinat

The Plant Phenology Ontology 2016 Workshop participants

This month, I attended a NEON/USGS-sponsored workshop in Fort Collins, CO where the goal was to develop a plant phenology ontology. An ontology is a controlled vocabulary (with clear definitions of participants, processes, and the relationships between them) that can be used to link data across networks to facilitate comparisons and analysis. Here is an example of a simple ontology showing components of the vascular leaf:

From the Plant Ontology Consortium

Plant phenology is the perfect example of a process in need of vocabulary standardization. At the workshop, participants from large-scale ground-based observational networks such as the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) and the National Phenology Network (NPN), as well as participants using remote observations, discussed the different ways we record phenology:

Rob Guralnick leads the charge! Photo by Kjell Bolmgren
Our phenology terms varied widely depending on the data set! The result is that despite increasing spatial and temporal coverage of phenology observations, the different vocabularies among networks makes the task of comparing or combining these data sets immensely challenging:  

Comparing phenology data sets. Photo by Kjell Bolmgren
As a group, we defined important entities and processes involved in leaf phenology (that could be applied to all gymnosperms and angiosperms), as well as how each of those terms link to one another. We made great progress on the ontology, but there is still a lot of work to do before a full ontology is online and ready to use. After working on the leaf phenology ontology during the week, we took a stab at the reproductive phenology ontology during our last group dinner:

Jenn Yost of Cal Poly knocks out an ontology in crayon

The ultimate goal is to build an ontology that will allow researchers to integrate phenology measurements from different networks, to address important topics like the effects of climate change on phenology in different habitats, or linking species-level and canopy-level phenology. I look forward to continuing work on the plant phenology ontology with this great group of researchers! 

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