Tuesday, August 07, 2007

A Deluge of Data

The International Species Information System is an organization charged with coordinating data gathering, storage and usage among zoos and aquaria around the world. They started out keeping track of things like which zoos had which animals, how individuals were related to each other and so on. Over time they have come to have enormous demographic and physiological databases and they hold individual data on millions of captive animals.

These data were originally collected for the use of ISIS member organizations in the management of their captive populations, but as the amount and quality of data has improved, these data sets have becomeof interest to a wide range of other researchers.

In my work, I am interested to know for as many species of primates as possible, whether the males live longer, the females live longer, or the longevity of the two species is approximately the same. I am specifically interested in the capacity for longevity of each sex of each species, rather than how long they live when exposed to disease, predators and famine. And so when I heard that ISIS had longevity data on hundreds of thousands of captive primates, I was very interested.

But of course, there are problems. The data were collected by, and are owned by, ISIS's member organizations. The fact that they were collected in a decentralized way means that a chimp can be recorded as having been born in 1692 when it was probably born in 1962. Some individuals have birth dates recorded, but no death dates, and so on.
Also, the zoos consider this type of data to be potentially sensitive. No zoo wants to be known as the zoo where Gorillas have the shortest life expectancy. So the data needed to have all possible identifying information removed before ISIS could get permission from the zoos to share the data with researchers. And only someone who is really familiar with zoo data could prune the bad data, process the data into sex*species specific life tables and get approval to let me use these.

Enter Laurie Bingaman Lackey of ISIS. She agreed to get me as much of the data as she could. But she is a busy woman, and this was for her basically a side project, undertaken to help me and get her name on a paper or two. And she had to go through each species individually, look for bad data, compile a life table from what remained. So it took a little over three years to get the data to me. Sex specific life tables for all 120 species of primates that ISIS has enough data on for my purposes. A Herculean effort. Now that I have the data, I have to remember what exactly I was going to do with them.

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