Taking the global pulse of biodiversity monitoring: Q&A with Andrew Gonzalez

Taking the global pulse of biodiversity monitoring: Q&A with Andrew Gonzalez

Conservation technology has witnessed an unprecedented boom in recent years. Drones are soaring higher than ever before. DNA sampled from soil, air and water are revolutionizing biodiversity surveys. Artificial intelligence is making it easier to analyze gargantuan amounts of data.

However, despite the dizzying pace of advances in technology, scientists, researchers and tech enthusiasts continue to have one grouse.

Technology projects working on biodiversity monitoring continue to operate in isolated silos, with the level of collaboration and data sharing not commensurate with the urgency of the issue.

A new proposal by a group of scientists aims to fill that gap. The Group on Earth Observations Biodiversity Observation Network (GEO BON) is a network of scientists and experts monitoring biodiversity around the world. It’s calling for a global network to centralize this monitoring and facilitate seamless transfer of data within countries.

The GBiOS, short for Global Biodiversity Observing System, according to the proposal, will be similar to the network of local weather monitoring stations across the world, whose data are used to monitor climate change and its impacts globally.

“This is really about getting ourselves coordinated, and acting collectively together for this challenge,” Andrew Gonzalez, co-chair of GEO BON, and professor in the department of biology at McGill University in Canada, told Mongabay in a video interview. “We would not only federate people who are working together more effectively, but also fill many of the gaps in the data that currently exist in the biodiversity field.”

The timing of the proposal for a global biodiversity monitoring network, according to Gonzales, comes at a “particularly opportune moment.” In December last year, the United Nations Biodiversity Conference (COP15) in Montreal culminated with 188 countries coming together and finalizing an agreement to address the biodiversity crisis.

The Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework got countries to, most prominently, pledge on protecting 30% of their lands and oceans by 2030. Given the agreement’s highly ambitious targets, Gonzalez said, it’s more important than ever to ensure global cooperation and unity to study and monitor biodiversity.

Andrew Gonzalez is the co-chair of GEO BON and a professor in the department of biology at McGill University in Canada. Image courtesy of The Gonzalez Lab.
Andrew Gonzalez is the co-chair of GEO BON and a professor in the department of biology at McGill University in Canada. Image courtesy of The Gonzalez Lab.

Andrew Gonzalez spoke with Mongabay’s Abhishyant Kidangoor about the vision for GBiOS, how he sees it playing out, and the challenges ahead. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Mongabay: To start with, what is GBiOS? How would you describe it to someone who hasn’t heard of it before?

Andrew Gonzalez: GBiOS is an idea and initiative to put into place a worldwide observatory for biodiversity. That means that we would bring together different technologies — that could be satellites, observations on the ground, DNA, drones — into a coherent network. It would allow us to measure different facets of biodiversity, whether that’s entire ecosystems, down to where individuals may be moving into an integrated whole. It would not only federate people who are working together more effectively, but also fill many of the gaps in the data that currently exist in the biodiversity field. The idea is to propose an international structure that would support countries under the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity [CBD] to obtain data they need to assess progress on goals and targets of the global biodiversity framework. It’s about bringing people and technologies together to better measure biodiversity change.

Mongabay: What will it look like? Will it be a web-based platform in the end?

Andrew Gonzalez: There will, no doubt, be various ways, depending on who you are or how you would engage with it. For example, users may have access to a platform where you would obtain access to data that’s streaming from the GBiOS network. If you’re a producer of information or data, you may plug in at the other end. For example, if you’re a regional monitoring network for butterflies, and you’ve been collecting data for some period of time, and you’re using various technologies to observe and record where butterflies are, you would plug into GBiOS as a data provider in a federated agreement to be part of the overarching effort to produce this data.

Mongabay: How do you see all of this coming together globally?

Andrew Gonzalez: In climate science, there are several bodies that are managing climate observations. Similarly, we will have several bodies that are managing biodiversity observations. We have something called the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, and a similar one for oceans. Both of those repositories, and others like GenBank, would do the data curation part. Then it’s about connecting the observing technologies. This platform would serve as a way for producers of data to contribute, and then users to be able to obtain information from a polygon in some geographic extent that they would like to work with. We are still figuring out the best governing model for this. Is it best that countries negotiate and work together under the GBiOS banner to coordinate their biodiversity observations? Or should it be scaled down where it’s driven by a research agenda? A little bit like climate science initially, where it was sort of research networks coming together to do more with their infrastructure. It’s a work in progress.

Wildlife Drones CEO Debbie Saunders launches a drone-enabled radio telemetry system. Image courtesy of Wildlife Drones.
Wildlife Drones CEO Debbie Saunders launches a drone-enabled radio telemetry system. Image courtesy of Wildlife Drones.

Mongabay: What is the motivation behind setting up GBiOS?

Andrew Gonzalez: We were conscious that the demands of this new global agreement for biodiversity information are quite high. Every country is going to need access to biodiversity information to be able to track change according to these indicators that have been proposed by the CBD. As it turns out, there are billions of observations of data on biodiversity. But more than 80% of them fall in 10 countries around the world, and less than 7% of the Earth’s surface, ocean and land is covered by these observations. So we only really know where biodiversity is changing in 10 countries on 7% of the Earth’s surface. This is a huge bottleneck. This is probably the primary obstacle right now to be able to turn intentions into action.

You can’t manage what you can’t measure. We can’t assess progress if the map is absent of information. Many people are out there collecting data, but they’re not doing it in a coordinated fashion, within and among countries. So the vision is to, one, take stock of what we have; two, bring that together; and, three, suggest a mechanism so that we can start filling these enormous geographical and taxonomic data gaps.

Mongabay: How did this come together?

Andrew Gonzalez: This is not a new idea. The idea of building an observatory for biodiversity is at least 10 years old. There are examples out there for specific ecosystems. There is a network for worldwide tropical forests, grassland networks, and other communities that have got themselves organized. And then, obviously, within countries, there are bird surveys, butterfly surveys and mammal surveys. So it’s not that people don’t recognize the importance of monitoring. But what has been lacking is a clear vision for stitching it all together. So we either sit back, wait for $100 billion and build a bespoke system. That’s sort of a 1980s solution to a big problem. Or you do it another way and work with people to bring together what we have. We’re in that latter vision. That is new, relative to what was proposed 10 to 15 years ago by one of the founding members of GEO BON, who formed it as the entity that would essentially try to realize the vision of GBiOS.

I felt that in the last two and a half years, I’d spoken to enough people in the network that there seemed to be this emerging and shared understanding about what needs to happen. This idea that there’s a unit of something that you can, anybody can, build, no matter how big or small your country is, and it’s a way of networking people, the technologies and the data so that you create this sort of cooperative thing.

GEO BON has been working toward that for about a decade now, and has supported the establishment of BONs [biodiversity observation networks] in different places around the world. All I did really was bring together that working vision into, what I hope is, an accessible workflow that allows other entities — whether that’s an NGO, a government research team, or the CBD office, whoever it is — to say that they can see themselves reflected in that approach.

Gonzalez with part of his team. Image courtesy of The Gonzalez Lab.
Gonzalez with part of his team. Image courtesy of The Gonzalez Lab.

Mongabay: What’s the next step in making this vision a reality?

Andrew Gonzalez: Many people agree that this needs to happen. What needs to happen next is for a group of us or a set of groups to come together to put down a formal proposal for what this needs to look like. That needs to be accompanied with seed funding, something where you can pay for the time of a reasonable number of experts in data science and observation technologies. Then we would lay down a mechanism for governance and cooperation. This has not been done globally ever before. There are lots of BONs in countries, and the process of building a BON has been done many times. It doesn’t happen overnight, but we know how to do that. So then we need to emulate that at the next level up. The last step would be to find some pilot countries that are willing to work together. Not just the usual suspects in northwest Europe, but a truly global distribution of countries that come together to form the beginnings of this global network.

Mongabay: Why are you advocating for GBiOS at this point in time?

Andrew Gonzalez: I see this as a particularly opportune moment because we have come out of COP15, and we have this new Global Biodiversity Framework. Within the GBF, there is what’s called the monitoring framework. Nested within the overarching agreement is this commitment to measure progress. So I’m trying to use that as a vehicle to carry the GBiOS idea forward.

Now, of course, there are two ways to interpret the monitoring framework. One is that it’s every country for themselves. Everybody focuses on the challenge of generating data, and there is no global entity required. It’s just a sum of countries. My particular perspective is that biodiversity doesn’t respect physical borders. Biodiversity is moving and responding to climate change and conservation pressures from one country to another. Having a global system allows us to see the big picture at the same time.

Mongabay: Realistically speaking, what’s the timeline you have in mind?

Andrew Gonzalez: If we have something that is recognized as GBiOS by 2030, I think that will be fantastic. The first targets of the Global Biodiversity Framework will be assessed in 2030. Many of the major initiatives that have been talked about, for example, protecting 30% of the Earth’s surface by 2030 and some of those big headline targets help put a timeline in front of us.

We really need to act. There’s this opportunity now. Many countries share a similar need. We are also seeing a revolution in our ability to measure biological diversity in different ways, with new technologies like environmental DNA and hyperspectral sensors on satellites. If we can get everybody to agree that this is what we need to do right now, I think we’ll end up accelerating our ability to bring everybody together in time. That’s what I am working toward.

Satellite image of Argentina’s Patagonia region. Image by NASA Landsat.
Satellite image of Argentina’s Patagonia region. Image by NASA Landsat.

Mongabay: What challenges do you anticipate along the way?

Andrew Gonzalez: There are a couple of obvious challenges. We are seeing this fork in the road because there are preoccupations with data sovereignty and security. We are living in a world where privacy, data and sharing your data is an issue, especially with fears around how that information is used.

One of the risks is that we don’t design a system that has the appropriate care built into the security side and doesn’t necessarily respect the rights of the people who generate that knowledge, particularly Indigenous people. A lot of the wording in the monitoring framework is about respecting the rights of people to share and divulge data or to do that under their own terms. There are technical solutions for that — how we do cloud computing and how we share information. But some countries are reticent or wary that we will do this in a way that is not sufficiently respectful of data rights. We can’t be naive about it. You can’t just expect people to just throw data into a giant database and then let the world have at it. So that’s one issue.

One other issue is around the private sector. Multinational organizations, but also much smaller businesses as well, are all having to respond right now to this idea of nature-related financial disclosures, this idea that companies have to start disclosing their impacts on nature. So there is a risk that the private sector, because there’s a lot of money available to set this up, will go fast in one direction. And the science community, that has been working on the data workflows and a vision, may end up in another direction. There’s this divergence where one sector is producing information it needs and there’s another science and academic sector, and these two sectors aren’t talking. One of the things I really want us to get right is making sure that we all work together in new public-private partnerships. I think we can do that. I have had many conversations with different entities and there is a legitimate desire to work together to do this well.

Another challenge is clearly that we will have tens, if not hundreds, of billions of observations of nature. What do you do with that information? How does that information serve knowledge that then guides policy? That is a missing piece right now.

Every country has a weather service. It turns observations of the state of the weather or the atmosphere or of climate into something that’s useful and actionable. So what we need to create is something like that: a biodiversity data service that translates observations, images from satellites, or DNA sequences that we find in the soil or in the water, and turn that into an inference. That way, we go from just observations of polar bears or butterflies into something that is more tangible and useful.

Mongabay: Where does technology play a role in all of this?

Andrew Gonzalez: We’re experiencing a revolution, in a positive way, in how new technologies are being deployed to get through this bottleneck of data and knowledge. We’re seeing creative uses of drone technologies in a way that allows us to sample and observe much larger areas and get into regions of nature that we couldn’t reach before. I think we’re seeing a gradual democratization of it through the access to cheap bioacoustic sensors or camera traps that allow anybody to very quickly deploy a network of sensors and start to quantify activity. Then we’re seeing the advent of DNA-based technologies that have become affordable, and a new constellation of satellites. It’s fantastic if it’s done well, but also done carefully and respectfully.

A few years ago, it would have been very hard for us to be able to create a global biodiversity observing system. Now, I think it’s absolutely possible. And not just for a few charismatic organisms, because it really can go from microbes and insects all the way up to mammals and the charismatic fauna and flora that we care about. The risk is that we are not organized in how we’re doing that. There doesn’t seem to be much investment going into how we do more with this information that we’re measuring. I think there are communities coming together. For example, around bioacoustics and around using satellites to track movements of organisms. I think there are impressive communities coming together. But what I’m not seeing are those communities talking to each other. There isn’t a federated community of communities. I think that is the particular thing that I’m trying to propose. We do that in an organized way, and then we’re going to be able to do so much more with this revolution and this incredible increase in our capacity to measure the changing state of nature.

We also need to understand the causes and drivers of biodiversity change. Those are not necessarily measured by biologists. So how the climate is changing, or how land is being developed, or how fertilizers are being applied. That requires us working with other groups. Nonbiologist groups have their own networks like in the health sciences, climate sciences and urban development. What I hope is that we will organize ourselves within the biodiversity community, while also connecting with these other entities so that we have a holistic understanding of how the Earth is changing.

Researchers swabbing leaves to collect DNA samples. Image by Andreas Sachse.
Researchers swabbing leaves to collect DNA samples. Image by Andreas Sachse.

Mongabay: How do you hope to see GBiOS being used in the next five to 10 years?

Andrew Gonzalez: I dream that any country in the world will be able to draw upon information from GBiOS and be able to update their understanding of the progress they are making toward their goals and targets. The hope is that we’ll have an agreement, we’ll have funding, and we will have mobilized these different communities that are doing biodiversity observation and working together on knowledge and data sharing.

This doesn’t require hundreds of billions of dollars. This is not like building the Hadron Collider of physics. It’s about doing more with what we have, and committing to a way of working together. It’s completely doable. Sometimes people say to me, “This feels like a huge thing and it’s too big to pull off.” I say to them, “Well, actually, most countries are already doing observations. The technologies are being deployed. We have global entities measuring information. This is really about getting ourselves coordinated, and acting collectively together for this challenge.”

Other communities have built a global climate-observing system. Think about how quickly we built the observing system for COVID-19 and how quickly it became available. All that information was available on your phone. Within a year, we had global worldwide knowledge. So if we make it a priority, we can definitely do it.


Gonzalez, A., Vihervaara, P., Balvanera, P., Bates, A. E., Bayraktarov, E., Bellingham, P. J., … Wright, E. (2023). A global biodiversity observing system to unite monitoring and guide action. Nature Ecology & Evolution, 1-5. doi:10.1038/s41559-023-02171-0

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This article by Abhishyant Kidangoor was first published by Mongabay.com on 11 October 2023. Lead Image: A leopard in Primorsky Krai region in the Russian Far East caught on camera. Image by Wildlife Conservation Society via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

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