a ux look at (the encyclopedia of) Life

“Imagine an electronic page for each species of organism on Earth...”

Encyclopedia of life is an amazing, insane undertaking. E. O. Wilson did a delightful, rambling TED-talk, and things actually happened. A lot of people apparently got together, large sums of money was involved, an awful lot of meetings, I presume, and a website was born. With a whole bunch of impressive collaborators, they started building a page for every living thing. Every living named thing, I should say. We do not really know how may species there is on earth.

 pink katydPersonally, I thought the site was awful. Then – Hurrah! – they rebuilt and redesigned recently. It got much better, I certainly approve. It is made by scientists and the public; we can all contribute, and the information is moderated by scientists. I love the idea, I love the insane ambition of it, I love living things, and I think it is both scientifically and individually important. This is a good start for having a positive dander through a website. Through lifeforms, actually. I excitedly open the brand new EOL. Not unreasonably, I am met with a large search box.

And there I sat. What to search for? Pathetically, I typed in “cat”. I messed around with felidae. You and me can contribute to EOL, so I amused myself looking for pics of peoples pets. I imagine a lot of people would think it wonderous to have their tabby put in encyclopedic context for all the world to see. Then I did “elephant shrew”. Because they are the funniest little things. I fiddle about with the taxonomy for a bit, but my latin is not good enough, my understanding of taxonomy a little shaky, their tree a little unclear (Taxonomy, by the way, is a scary, scary thing, but that is a different chapter). So, as is so often the case, finding something specific, the known-item-search is wonderfully easy. It is the discovering that is a problem.

UI & UX. Unknown terms to many. It stands for usability and user interface; we all know when these things do not work. It is a bit like only noticing the surface you are driving on when it is full of potholes.

I have to say, EOL is not full of potholes. They are doing a lot of things right. But here is what I would have liked to play with, what I would like to discover. If I was the president of the universe, EOL would have these things for me to explore… find living things that have the colour green. All things with fur that lives in Marocco. What creatures are parasites, what have symbiotic relations? (The disturbing Cymothoa exigua, the tongue-eating louse springs to mind) Who eats who? What species overlap where? What is the food chain for a deepwater anglerfish, a bobcat, a tapir? What do humans make and eat of various species? Why are there no green mammals? What species have their closest relation on another contient? Show me all creatures with wings. How many species of dragonflies? What species are directly dependent on each other, and which species are mutually beneficial? I can go on and on and on. I am a little Napoleonic here maybe, EOL is a massive undertaking as it is.

And maybe it is a good thing they do not have this. If EOL ever get these things, I would never leave the site, and get nothing done.

Of course, making this would be either the nightmare of a lifetime, or the most fun you could possibly have. A million potholes, and a million things that can go wrong, I see piles of technical problems, itches and conundrums. But I mean; imagine… dream