The Story of TAXA

Initial thoughts, start, present and future

Ever since 1975 I have embarked on becoming a dedicated wood collector. As of December 2016, I have a collection of about 3,300 different species of wood. It takes 7 chest of drawers just to keep all the samples. I attribute a large part of the success in being able to do so to having a life membership in the International Wood Collectors Society (IWCS).

In year 2000 (16+ years ago),I had noticed at that time that so much research had been done about wood yet there were no listings of all the woods in the world. Various assumptions were being passed around about how many woods there are, some as high as 90,000 species. What seemed odd to me was that, although I already had access to many online botany databases via the Internet and other media, I could not find anywhere a listing of woods around the world that came close to being comprehensive.

It was then that I took on a long term challenge to search and find as many different woods as I could. As a wood collector, this intrigued me since that list would be the theoretical top target of what woods can be collected, (practical or not). You can't collect what you do not know. A list of all known woods would be a big step forward. How little did I know at first how far and large this project would become.

For the firsts 9 years, I did not have a programming language that suited designing a website that allowed me to be able to do custom database programming. I started with a simple ascii text file and indented for each organizing level.

All living things are categorized in science under the "Tree of Life". Because there are so many types of life on earth (from viruses to bacteria, plants from microscopic to giant trees, birds, fish, animals and much more), there has to be many levels of organization to categorize all types of living forms. At first I had to find and decide what levels I needed out of this massive set only for wood. Eventually it became apparent that I would need four scientific levels of organization; woody order, family, genus and species.

As a wood collector for years, I had learned that using common names only just does not work well. There are many woods that end up being called the same kind of wood (eg. rosewood, mahogany, ironwood) and there are many woods that have the same name. That quickly degrades to total confusion. You don't know what you have.

Changing Into a Database Driven Website

By the end of the ninth year, I saw that I had grown a file of wood related information that was over an amazing 5.8 megabytes in size. For those of you who would not know, that is a very large file indeed. I knew that sooner or later, I would have to change over to a more versatile and powerful database home for all this data. The larger that text file grew, the more extended the time would take to copy all of it into a new database driven home once it was ready. It would take 2,700 pages if you wished to print it! In fact, it had grown so big that the time came to temporarily suspended adding more data in preference to start learning PHP (for web programming) and MySQL (for database work) so I could build the online database driven repository for all my data. That was now so needed.

For the first couple years, the going was slow as I gained skills in PHP and MySQL. By the way, they work so well together that many books on them are written up on both languages at the same time. I studied from books and was into discussion groups with others that knew a lot more than I did, asking how to do specific things and why what I was doing didn't work. I am grateful for all the online help I got. I am still slow in programming but learned enough to grow a large database system for wood.

TAXA by the way was adopted as a short nickname for "taxonomy", the naming of things. The project is frequently referred to as the TAXA project. This was a natural choice since the very beginning of the project was to find and name all woods of the world. The project is only about a small section of the Tree of Life organizational system but what a large venue it covers!

The Tree of Wood

The first major and central project online became the Tree of Wood. Wood comes from living plants (mostly trees). The botanical names of trees, shrubs and vines are the same for the woods they grow. The botanical tree of woods at first was somewhat primitive but it has since come a long way. There are four levels in which a reader can enter, from the top organizational level of woody orders through to woody families, woody genera and finally woody species. Woody genera group whole related types of woods, such as all pines, all oaks, all rosewoods, all maples and so on. It is at the woody species level that each botanical name relates to one specific wood. It is at this level, for instance, that it makes sense to include actual photos and scans of individual woods.

Understanding and Navigating Organizational Levels

Work on the Tree of Woods has progressed enough that readers can enter and travel up and down the Tree of Wood starting at any of the four levels. Each organizational name at different levels is called a Taxon. Each specific taxon can be chosen and it has its properties listed -- to the extent that data is in the database). Below it the next level of plants in that taxon lists all the lower taxons that are related to it. It is not that complex. For instance, starting at the top there is a list of woody orders. Picking one will bring you to the page dedicated to the name you chose. It lists all the data on your choice. Below it are listed all the woody families that are organized under that woody order.

Pick a woody family from the list and the website changes to the page dedicated to it, listing the facts on this family. Below it, all the genera that are organized under that family are listed. As you might expect, picking one of the listed genera (plural of genus) under the chosen family brings you to description of that genus .... and the woody species under that genus. It is at this level that most people can relate to since it is finally where each individual wood is listed. Picking one wood species brings the reader to the page dedicated to it with as much detail that has been entered into the database. With more advanced work since, it includes text, photos and scans of the wood, and UV fluorescence of some woods.

It is equally possible to start at the bottom of the tree with species, genera and families and climb to each next upper level, too. The Botanical Tree of Wood now is complete and works well. It provides a solid foundation to access all the data. There is so much data to work with that an alphabetical line was added to each level to cut down closer to only those taxons starting with the first letter chosen. That is especially important at the species level where to date (December 2016) over 15,200 woods are listed. It takes a lot of panning and paging to get around --- sometimes even with a letter chosen.

Adding a Search Engine

Since this is a massive amount of information, a search engine internal to TAXA has been added. This allows a reader to let the computer assist a lot with the sorting and finding data you really do want. You can search by common name, botanical name or the woods listed for any country or region. Producing the in house search engine was another key step forward to TAXA that added a lot of power and versatility to navigating and using all the massive data in TAXA.

At time of writing (December 2016) I am reporting 15,200 species of wood. There was a time when I saw so much additional information about wood had followed into the website that I noticed it was far more than just a collection of thousands of wood species names. It actually was growing into a viable and sizeable database of wood, not just names. I renamed the project the TAXA Wood Knowledge Base.

As much as 90%+ of the programming data is mine. There have been thousands of hours I have put into it, almost exclusively my own time as I could find time. There are 4 galleries -- one for trees, for UV fluorescence of wood, photomicros (needs more development) and over 2,400 colour scans of different species of woods. It has its own search engine and other features you can see in the main menu. The menu repeats itself at the start of each function.

The Heart of TAXA - The Database

Think of a large house with many windows. As you look into different windows, you would see many different views. For example, One view shows a kitchen. Other windows would show a living room, a dining room, while others would show bedrooms, all different in size and decor and usage ---- yet so many of these views are all from one house. So it is with a database system.

The actual data is kept in a database, all categorized by how its creation was designed. Where the data is actually stored (in the database) is often referred to as the "back end" of a database. However, if a house had no windows (or they were all covered), you could not see into the house to see its contents. So it is with a database system. No matter how small or large the amount of data a database stores, you cannot view it directly. You need software specifically designed to gather the information requested and format it in a useable way to finally make the information visible. This is often referred to the "front end" of a database system.

The most valuable part of the TAXA system is its very large database. It is the foundation on which further programming can search, count, sort and do many other manipulations and perfections in how the data is displayed. One database can provide as many different views as the imagination and need to use the data it stores and how it is dispayed. It is this combination that makes TAXA far more powerful and versatile than the simple text file that started it.

Adding Even More Functions

Indeed --- this versatility and power has allowed TAXA to expand into many very different and useful views and functions. The botanical tree of wood opened the door to accessing and using the data stored in Taxa. The internal search engine seeks and digests huge amounts of data at speeds that can be expect only from computers. You can make queries by botanical names, common names and locations (countries and regions).

If you are wondering about how much data exists in TAXA under different considerations, just go to the TAXA Status function. Every time this is requested, it races through the massive data in TAXA to repopulate the current statistics on what TAXA contains in real time.

There are other working functions such as listing what all true softwoods are and listing all woods (by common names) found to be used commercially. All this had to be designed and programmed into TAXA one project at a time. Included are four image galleries. The colour gallery displaying actual colour images of over 2,400 wood species, the UV fluorescence gallery is for those woods that glow under UV light, A photo-micro gallery shows the structure of woods under a microscope. A tree gallery to show off photos of trees from which woods come from.

The Need to Advance to a Large Team of Data Inputers and Programmers

I trust that this illustration of a system of a back end database coupled with programming to produce various views, each very different, shows how powerful a database driven system can be. As more research is done (especially genetic research), classification changes happen frequently. In the original text research file, making those changes often was a lot of work. It is much easier to move whole species, genera and (less often) families. Changes in whole orders is rare but can happen.

It need not end there, either. There are other functions I would love to add. The project is so very huge though, especially for essentially only one person to handle that there is a constant slow pace to producing both massive new data and new functionality in TAXA. I am in frequent contention wanting to do more data entry (massive data input still needed) against really cool ideas I want to add to TAXA.

The TAXA project has grown to be a massive undertaking. Even if no new programming for new functions and better usability was never done, there are large amounts of data that has added so far --- but tremendous amounts that still need to be added. There are many functional additions and improvements that have been planned that could also be added. Even with almost all the work having been done by one person, it has become a substantial and useable reference source --- even as it is. The worst case scenario would be my having to work on future (massive) data input by myself and still do practically all new programming alone. Frankly, that would put major restraints on what TAXA could become. It would slow down TAXA developing to world status.

TAXA has grown to have many versatile and powerful functions and a very large amount of data, enough to surprise many readers of how much has been done already. This, though, is a fraction of what could be done that could turn the TAXA a world class website. The workload to arrive at this point is huge, tremendous. For only one person to accomplish this would be staggering to even think of. A person would even be close to the truth to think that all this work likely could not be finished within my lifetime. I have no intention, by the way, nor is it possible for me to dedicate every waking hour just on TAXA until I die of old age.

TAXA has grown enough as is that it now needs recognition of others to join in on massive further data input and for programmers to help speed up the creations of numerous additional functions and improvements. The more numbers of qualified people that would volunteer or otherwise be paid to do the work, the faster the work and the more amazing the result can be. I am not part of some much larger body or to date an institution that is doing this. Getting others to volunteer to help can be very hard. That leaves either paying people to do the work or getting enough mutual interest to carry the work forward by a larger institution or business (eg. a university? A publisher? A environmental organization)? An effort has been made by a professor of a well known university to procure a large grant for further development but with no offers. The future will tell if funding can be found.

What the Future Might Hold

Compared to the simple premises that started TAXA of searching for as many woods in the world, the complexity and massive volume of data (both already in TAXA and what could be added) is astounding ---- and the task at hand to find, collate and install this data is truly massive.

One of the outstanding facts about TAXA is the very broad range of sources that have been used to gather data. This has ranged throughout books on wood and on trees, lists of private and institutional wood collection contents, to a wide variety of online databases, lists of forests and trees in different countries, many commercial sources for wood and far more. It is one more way that TAXA is unique. Many listings of trees and woods are quite long, often many pages in size. Manually going through even one long list to find news species not yet found can take many hours. It can get tiring, too, so that human error in visually scanning a list can creep in to some degree also.

The number of such lists and sources has grown large. It is far from practical for one person to extract new species and enter data manually. It would even be a massive task to accomplish this even with a whole group of volunteers or paid assistants. If sufficient custom programming could be arranged specifically for comparing lists, computers can compare data stored in columns far, far faster than human manual comparing can do. Development within the next year of such software could do wonders for TAXA in digesting all this data in record speed. It is time that such custom programming be done.

There is one event that could skyrocket the TAXA project to near completion for the world number of existing wood species. It is too early to tell yet if this can be done. I have found that a list of 59,000 species is either in development or exists. If a copy of that list could be provided, it would bring the initial idea of finding all the woods of the world within as complete as is practical. Amazingly, that has the potential to list almost four times as many woods. Only time and persistence can tell.

That would be truly astounding but at this time it is worth being reminded that TAXA is no longer only a very long list of woods around the world but has long since graduated to be a far larger knowledge base for wood. Since there are tens of thousands of different woods, there is many times more data that either is reported in TAXA or can be found and added. Growing the number of species reported would be an amazing accomplishment --- but with even room and need for far more data. It would be a dream come true for the original thoughts that started TAXA.

More Functions, More Control

So far, only acquiring a lot more data and adding it to TAXA has been emphasized. Each custom task in programming has the potential of multiplying the versatility, power and ease of use of TAXA. I have realized for a few years already of changes and additions to the very foundation and list of functions for TAXA that can be and should be considered. How much can be done and at what speed will depend heavily on how much additional assistance TAXA can attract, both financially and in good will assistance. Let's look at some of those fine possibilities.

The working properties of Wood - Programming has already been initiated for the structure of this and for a section that would hold many test values on woods. The work of filling in the data for this section is so large that I have had to leave a note that to bringing this function into useable reality would need numerous volunteers just to gather the data and enter it. It is a large project in itself, too much for me to do alone. For anyone who works with different woods, this would be a popular feature.

An Administrative Center - There is a lot involved toward adding data to TAXA and all the processes to maintain it. So far, a lot of this is done using third party software run remotely. Another major step forward for TAXA will be an administrative center running right alongside with the website. This section of TAXA will not be accessible by the general public but only by myself and optionally anyone else who is trusted to be involved with assisting. A more involved stats center would make it easier to see what is happening throughout TAXA anytime, anywhere the Internet is on a computer that can reach the website.

The number of useful features that could be added to an administrative center is only limited by imagination of what things would be found helpful. For instance, there should be a balance of each species having a recorded genus. Flipping this, a genus must have at least one woody species. Administrative reports would make it far easier keeping on top of this. New functions could easily offer reports of when data is missing or unbalanced in many situations --- all done automatically every time it is requested. As the record of existing woody genera approaches all existing ones, as new species are added, the system can check if it can add the genus name automatically in the genus column.

Automated backups would be a very valuable addition to protect the years and thousands of hours put into the data TAXA has. These are only scratching the surface on possibilities of functions within an administrative center.

An Extensive Wood Photomicro Gallery - Photos taken at microscope level are used by wood professionals as a key manner of species identification. It is at this level that a lot of professional research is done. So far, enough programming has been done to show the concept of a photomicro gallery but a lot more work is needed to bring it close to a world class gallery. This is one area that is likely to attract researchers and professionals in all wood related fields to TAXA and to have many of them return many times. There are design and programming issues that need to be addressed firstly to make the gallery work correctly and be easy to navigate. Next, the largest challenge is to fill it as full as possible with photomicros of as many species of wood that is possible. Hopes would be that it would become the most comprehensive collection of photomicros worldwide. This is one more wild and massive project but one worth pursuing --- with the right resources to accomplish it.

More UV Fluorescent Photos - At time of writing, only about 73 fluorescent photos are shown. As much as 10% - 15% of species seem to fluoresce. Even with just the wood collection I have, there should be at least 350 woods that fluoresce. It is only the time to devote to sorting, photographing and entering species not yet photographed that do fluoresce. The results are eerie and fascinating. UV fluorescence is also as a means of wood identification.

Research Authorities Listings - Most times species names are referred to by two parts - the genus name and the epithet. Professionally, species, genera, families and even orders have a third part added. This is called the "authority". They are very commonly added as the person who first discovered and worked with each taxon. The whole system of adding authorities varies from simple to quite complex listings. The first research on a plant is often replaced by another researchers that do further research and claim corrections and additions to the original research.

All this is of interest especially to those who are professionally trained and degreed more so than casual lovers of wood. After using thousands of species names with authorities attached, many of them become familiar. It is more a matter of curiosity and interest to be able to see what species and taxons each researcher has worked on.

Far Future Apps Based on TAXA

If all the above was accomplished, TAXA would become a powerhouse indeed. There is one further advancement that could grow out of TAXA itself. There are private wood collectors and many institutions with wood collections. There is very little in compatibility amongst all of them in communications and in how their records are stored. It can be quite a chore to compare who has what. Whenever defacto standards come about in any field, often there are many benefits that develop because of them. I have never seen or read of an application soecifically for wood collecting. That is years in advance so let's leave details for whole new directions.

When all is said and done, the most powerful reason for TAXA to exist is if it can assist in preserving as many wood species in the world as possible. It is much easier knowing how to save woods if you know what you know what it is that you are trying to save firstly. Otherwise, species can become extinct and you would not even know it happened!