Information as Communication: The New Eco-Informatics

John J Kineman, K. Anil Kumar

Abstract


The goal of eco-informatics is to represent natural biodiversity and ecosystem phenomena, and to communicate such information to society, for science, valuation, management, and policy. Communication is the key, for without it information does not inform. We argue that past approaches to building databases and information systems were incomplete, and thus less communicative than needed regarding ecological phenomena. Information systems until recently have been limited to data about the physical state of the environment and biological components. While this worked well for physical systems, which can be modeled mechanistically, based on observable states and the application of general mechanistic laws, living systems have entailments beyond such mechanisms. They tend to generate additional system-dependent laws, or ‘functions’ that are internal to the natural system, and correspondingly must be represented as internal to the informatics system. Robert Rosen’s theory of ‘relational complexity’ is an appropriate foundation for new thinking about the entailment structure of living systems, and how to reflect that in informatics so it may represent living systems better. We derive from Rosen’s work, specifically his ‘modeling relation,’ a working theory of natural communication that can be implemented in informatics. This approach represents nature in terms of a complementarity between states and ‘functions.’ Functions act as system attractors or potentials, inducing but not determining change. The relationship is inherently complex, and when implemented in informatics it can support exploration of complex behaviors through simulations and scenario-building. Ecological functions, the ‘missing element’ in informatics, can be represented (but not totally specified) in the informatics architecture as a generalized form of ecological ‘niche’ model. A generalized form of niche model can be integrated with the database design. Relational complexity itself describes a natural form of communication. Designing informatics in an analogous manner suggests that it too will have better communication capacities. This, we argue, will allow informatics to accomplish its goal to communicate and inform. Various traditions, most notably from the East, present a view of the world as fundamentally complex and in constant communication with itself. To have a scientific way of representing this concept will improve integration across society and with various approaches to valuation, including indigenous values and perspectives. These needs are met in the proposed relational design for eco-informatics and enterprise development. A demonstration of how niche modeling can be used to represent an ecological function (the primary productivity of India) is appended. We believe the theory and implementation described here is a promising foundation on which advanced informatics capabilities may immediately be built to address the complexities of ecosystem management and to help meet pressing societal needs.

Keywords


Information, Communication, Relational Complexity, Niche Modeling, Ecosystem Informatics.

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