KeyBase - teaching old keys new tricks

Built in collaboration with Niels Klazenga from the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne, KeyBase is the world's most flexible and powerful system for deploying dichotomous keys on the web. KeyBase is a management system and deployment platform for keys. Importantly, keys in KeyBase are stored in a relational database, enabling flexible and powerful key operations and deployment and management options. It provides key web services to the Atlas of Living Australia's eFlora project and Vicflora, a new online Flora for Victoria.

Keys in KeyBase are organised into projects (such as the Flowering Plants of Australia, Flora of Victoria and Californian Vascular Flora projects). A project may contain many individual keys, all joined by KeyBase into a superkey. A user with a completely unknown specimen may start at the top level key (usually a key to families), then launch a key to genera of an identified family, keys to species of an identified genus etc. KeyBase links the keys automatically based on simple metadata provided by the key manager.

Because KeyBase keys are stored in this way, we can do remarkable things with them. A user has the option to view the key in a choice of format (indented, coupleted or using the inbuilt KeyBase key player). The key player allows for the most flexible mechanism of any system for performing an identification: users can move up or down through the key, skip backwards, and review at any time the list of taxa that remain in play or have been excluded.

More powerfully still, keys can be filtered. Imagine that a user needs to identify a specimen of Eremophila, a genus with many hundreds of species. One way to approach this would be to work through the entire key to all Australian eremophilas – a potentially laborious and time-consuming process. However, if the specimen was collected from a known locality and only a handful of Eremophila species occur in that vicinity, then the identification could proceed more easily and quickly using a key to just those species. There's no real need to deal with a couplet that removes species that occur on the other side of the continent and are very unlikely to be candidate species for the specimen being identified. Using KeyBase, a user can determine (using, for example, the Australian Virtual Herbarium) which taxa are possible in the area of collection, provide a list of these taxa to KeyBase, and ask KeyBase to prune the key (or keys) to include only those taxa. KeyBase keys can thus be used at multiple levels and for multiple identification tasks.

Future development plans for KeyBase include the development of virtual key projects (including a mix of filtered key sets and bespoke keys for geographic regions such as the Pilbara), the provision of imagery in KeyBase couplets, and the development of a "glossariser" service that will automatically provide glossary hyperlinks for terms used in key couplets.

Watch this space for more...