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Key Challenges

iPlants seeks to address the challenges inherent in making readily available information which is vital to the conservation of plant diversity and for the monitoring of ecosystems.

Knowing the correct name of a plant provides the key to finding out about its uses, distribution, habitat, relationship with other organisms and how it can be distinguished from similar plants. Most plants, however, have more than one name. The information necessary for cross-referencing synonyms to their accepted name is, unfortunately, scattered throughout the academic literature and can be contradictory. Some names, furthermore, maybe used incorrectly in some publications thus misleading readers into false assumptions about, for example, the safe use of a medicinal plant. iPlants also seeks to provide an image of every plant species in order to address this problem through facilitating accurate identification.

Conservation programs and sustainable development iniatives worldwide fail, or have significantly reduced impact, through lack of a comprehensive and authoritative list of plant names. Currently, there is no single reference from which to determine, say, how many plant species have been discovered to date, how many occur in a particular country, by what name a species should correctly be known or where it occurs. Without such a comprehensive list, linking accepted names to their synonyms, it is impossible to find all of the information published about a particular plant. Many databases worldwide contain useful information about plants, their use and conservation. These databases are public, private and personal, diverse in size and form and mostly do not link to one another. Every branch of plant science (ecology, evolutionary biology, agriculture, forestry, genetics, etc.) generates different types of information. iPlants is exploring how to link effectively to the various types of existing data source so that key information about a plant species can be assembled by querying on the plant name.

Production of a widely accessible list of all known plant species was identified as Target 1 of the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation (GSPC), a ground-breaking agreement endorsed in April 2002 by the 184 countries party to the Convention on Biological Diversity. In the absence of such a checklist, achieving or measuring progress towards the other 15 GSPC targets is extremely difficult. Concerted action is needed now to produce a central list to facilitate reaching the other targets by 2010. Creation of this list is the primary goal of iPlants. iPlants also seeks to contribute to Target 2 of the GSPC- 'preliminary conservation assessment of plant species' - by capturing specimen data and using a GIS-based tool to generate preliminary conservation ratings consistent with the IUCN red data assessments.

Successful completion of iPlants requires an unprecedented level of coordination among the world's major botanical institutions. It requires an integration of work procedures, policy, data standards and output. It also requires leadership to ensure effective collaboration with others in the botanical community. The most critical challenge is integration of information assembled at a variety of institutions into a coherent and simple to use search tool for public access via the Web. Many of the individual activities involved have been previously performed successfully at one or more of the partner institutions. The real challenge, and major advance that iPlants offers, is of a consistent, coordinated effort by the botanical community in response to the needs of society.