Leveraging Integrated Spatial Biological and Environmental Data in the Atlas of Living Australia

Mr Lee Belbin1

1The Atlas of Living Australia, Carlton, Australia,lee.belbin@csiro.au


The Atlas of living australia

The Atlas of Living Australia (ALA: http://www.ala.org.au) has around 75 million observations of species. The ALA has also collected over 500 regional, national and international environmental layers that relate in some way to the understanding and management of the environment on which we all depend for life [1].

The biological data are mainly comprised of human observations of species at a point location, but there are also an increasing number of machine observations using camera traps and electronic tags attached to animals [2]. Two other spatial representations of species include what we term ‘expert distributions’ where scientists with relevant experience suggest where the species may or should exist, and what are termed ‘checklist areas’: areas within which several species have been observed.

The biological and environmental data, taken separately, provide a significant resource for visualizing the environment of the Australian region. For example, we can see where scores of thousands of species occur, on land, in the rivers and the oceans. We can also see what typifies the environment of any area of land or ocean in the Australian region. Taken together however, we can spatially intersect the biological with environmental characteristics to help address significant questions. For example, “What species characterize this area (which may be a reserve)?” and “Where could this species occur in 2030?” [3].

The research Portal of the Atlas

In a research context, exploring the ALA functionality is best done first through the interface provided by the Spatial Portal [4] (http://spatial.ala.org.au) where integrated data, analysis and visualization tools are available in a systematic environment (Figure 1). In this interface, users can explore species and their attributes, environments and their interactions, all with a spatial emphasis. Seventeen tools are available to help understand the interactions of points and areas, for example point densities can be produced, or the evaluation of the conservation of species across multiple jurisdictions. Import of points using CSV and Excel® formats, and areas using shapefiles, KML or WKT formats are available to get data into and out of the ALA’s Spatial Portal.

Alternative Atlas interfaces

The Spatial Portal, like all the Atlas of Living Australia’s functionality, is based on a suite of web services listed at http://api.ala.org.au. You can access the ALA’s data and the Spatial Portal’s analytical tools from these web services. For example, submitting the URL


(the location of the Queensland Museum), returns

[{field: “el874”,

layername: “Temperature – annual mean (Bio01)”,

units: “degrees C”,

value: 20.4}]

This tells us that the mean annual temperature at this location is 20.4c. For those more comfortable or more efficient in the R environment (https://www.r-project.org/), the ALA4R package (https://cran.r-project.org/web/packages/ALA4R/index.html) can also be used to access most of the ALA data and a range of Spatial Portal tools. For example, in R and using the ALA4R function “intersect_points”, the following three lines

layers = c(‘cl1049′,’el874′,’el893’)

points = c(-37.043,146.733,-37.120,146.672,-37.173,146.837)


produces values for the bioregion name (IBRA 7), the mean annual temperature and the annual rainfall at the three nominated locations:

1   -37.043   146.733 Highlands-Northern FalL      10.8     1267

2   -37.120   146.672              Victorian Alps                             7.7       1483

3   -37.173   146.837   Highlands-Southern Fall       10.6     1158

These are a very small subset of the functionality in the Atlas of Living Australia that are designed to support the research commu8nity.


  1. Belbin, L., Williams, K.J. Towards a national bio-environmental data facility: experiences from the Atlas of Living Australia. International Journal of Geographical Information Science 2015, 30(1) 108-125. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13658816.2015.1077962
  2. Campbell, H.A., Urbano, F., Davidson, S., Dettki, H., Cagnacci, F. A plea for standards in reporting data collected by animal-borne electronic devices. Animal Biotelemetry 2016, 4. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40317-015-0096-x
  3. Booth T.H., Williams K.J. and Belbin L. Developing biodiverse plantings suitable for changing climatic conditions 2: Using the Atlas of Living Australia. Ecological Management & Restoration 2012, 13(3), http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/emr.12003/abstract
  4. Belbin, Lee. The Atlas of Livings Australia’s Spatial Portal, in, Proceedings of the Environmental Information Management Conference 2011 (EIM 2011), Jones, M., B. & Gries, C. (eds.), 39-43. Santa Barbara.


My professional career has evolved from being an exploration geologist with Cundill Meyers Pty Ltd in Canada and Australia (1970-1972) to running Blatant Fabrications Pty Ltd (2005-present).  In between, I’ve lectured on computer application in geoscience at the ANU (1972-78), done research in analytical ecology and managed environmental assessment projects in CSIRO (1979-1995), and established Australia’s first multidisciplinary science data centre at the Australian Antarctic Division (1995-2005). I have extensive experience in ecology, multivariate analysis, information management and policy and published over 100 papers. ORCID: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-8900-6203.

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