Implementing the International Transfer Format: Developing an International Database on ex situ Plant Collections

Diane Wyse Jackson, Peter Wyse Jackson

Botanic Gardens Conservation International
Descanso House, 199 Kew Road, Richmond, Surrey, TW9 3BW, U.K.


This paper outlines the history of the development of the BGCI computer plant conservation database.

It includes a concise description of an International Transfer Format for Botanic Gardens Records (ITF) file and its record structure; how the ITF was incorporated into the BGCI database, and the difficulties recognised and overcome in the ITF's implementation, as well as the problems that have been encountered when ITF records from botanic gardens world-wide are incorporated into the database.

The aim of the BGCI to build a comprehensive database of information relating to the plant conservation facilities and collections of botanic gardens world-wide are discussed, as well as the ways in which institutions contributing data to the system can benefit and use the information it contains.

Some future BGCI database development plans are outlined.

Background to the BGCI database

The historical development of botanic garden involvement with a central coordinating and monitoring conservation database began in 1974, when IUCN started the Botanic Gardens Conservation Co-ordinating Body (BGCCB). Its aim was to record the occurrence of rare and threatened plants being grown in 300 botanic gardens around the world. The BGCCB circulated questionnaires containing lists of rare and endangered plants, compiled from the database of IUCN's Threatened Plants Unit, to each of these botanic gardens. Those surveys undertaken included ones on endemic plants of oceanic islands, tree ferns, Madagascar succulents, Mexican cacti and endangered plants of Australia, Europe and the continental United States. Returns received indicated that for some groups and regions a high proportion of the endangered plants were cultivated ex situ. The data gained through these surveys was included in a computer database, now maintained and developed by BGCI. During the course of this work in monitoring botanic garden plant collections it became clear that while major advances could be achieved through the circulation of such questionnaires to botanic gardens and manual screening of published lists, a great deal more data could be included in a central database if some system could be agreed whereby the efficient electronic transfer of data could be achieved.

As a result of these considerations, an International Transfer Format for Botanic Garden Plant Records (ITF) was compiled by the Botanic Gardens Conservation Secretariat, and circulated and discussed prior to its publication in 1987. It quickly gained widespread acceptance as the major standard for botanic garden records world-wide and today most botanic gardens that presently have, or are preparing to computerize their record systems, ensure that they will be compatible with the ITF.

The database includes the following elements:

Up to May 1990, the BGCI database was held on the World Conservation Monitoring System's Wang VS system, based at Kew. It had been developed as part of the IUCN Conservation Monitoring Centre's (now WCMC) database. When WCMC's location moved to Cambridge the computer databases had to split. In any case this provided an opportunity for BGCI to move to a modern PC-based system. With the help of a grant from the W. Alton Jones Foundation, BGCI purchased a 486 PC fileserver with 350 megabytes of memory, and downloaded the data to an IBM-compatible PC format.

Before redevelopment of the BGCI database, it was only possible to include a limited amount of information on ex situ plant conservation collections in botanic gardens. This data was taxon-based, i.e. it was possible only to tell which taxa were grown in a botanic garden and whether material of wild, cultivated or unknown origin was held. The redeveloped database allows the incorporation of information on individual accessions, including their geographical origins, cultural requirements, collection details, level of verification of their identity and so on. Such information is essential if the conservation of a significant proportion of the surviving genetic material of each endangered species is to be possible.

Advanced Revelation was chosen as the software tool for the new BGCI database, as it was felt to be flexible and would keep BGCI in line with some other major conservation databases. Four main files were chosen to be the start of the PC database, they were:

A number of other files were also exported to support these main files, such as data sources, families, genera and a countries file.

During the two and a half years that BGCI has been separated from WCMC, the main innovations to the database have been:

  1. The inclusion of a DBASE III file on botanic gardens which formed the basis for the 1990 International Directory of Botanic Gardens, so that the details held on individual gardens is much greater than previously;
  2. Making the garden accession file ITF-compatible;
  3. Improving the content of the database on education in botanic gardens, and setting up an Educational Resource Catalogue which is published yearly;
  4. Developing a database on cultivation methodologies used for rare and endangered species;
  5. Establishing a contacts file for the day-to-day use of BGCI, to allow for the easy generation of labels and our membership list;
  6. Generally making the BGCI database more useful for our daily requirements, even to the extent of making a small 'RIO' database just to keep track of delegates' payments for this Congress;
  7. Devising a small botanic garden plant records management program for free distribution to members that have not yet developed or purchased their own plant records software;
  8. Working with WCMC to get up-to-date copies of the Threatened Plants Database, which itself has been converted from the old Wang format into an Advanced Revelation-format file maintained by Kerry Walter;
  9. Working with regional botanic networks to help them develop their own software and to ensure compatibility with BGCI.

Item 2 above referred to making BGCI's database ITF-compatible, which is the main subject of this paper.

The publication of the ITF

The ITF outlines a simple file format in ASCII with fixed-length fields, and a set record length of 362 characters. It has three types of record:

Type 1: This type is an optional introductory record which gives basic details about the institution or individual sending the file;

Type 2: This record type gives details about individual accession records at a site. It is always 362 characters long, and has 33 fields contained in this one record, each field starting at a predetermined position, and continuing for a set number of characters. If a field's details are not known, spaces make up that field, so that the next field is in the correct position;

Type 3: This record type is the end-of-file flag. One record of this type must be the last record in each ITF file, to mark its end. A specific end-of-file record is needed because not all ASCII file endings are written in the same way, and therefore the end of file might not be recognised without a Type 3 record. This record can also contain additional miscellaneous file information, such as the number of type 2 records sent, and a further 344 characters of free text for comments.

Although only these three record types currently exist, by making the end-of-file marker a specific type of ITF record, there is a large scope for further ITF modifications and other record type inclusions into the ITF format. Despite it being an ASCII fixed-field text file, it has provided resources for further file transfers, once they are devised.

The implementation of the ITF by BGCI

BGCI has been one of the main advocates of the ITF for both altruistic and selfish reasons. It was for the benefit all botanic gardens that a simple plant exchange format was devised, and of special interest to BGCI for fast, accurate recording and exchange of botanic gardens' accessions. Details would be entered and verified at a garden level, and then reformatted into ASCII text for transfer to BGCI, where the fields would be verified, compared against the WCMC Rare and Threatened Plant File, and then entered directly into the BGCI database. BGCI could then provide an analysis of these ITF records for, and to return to, the donor garden.

Nothing sounds more simple. In practice it rarely is and many decisions have to be made before an ITF record can be incorporated into the BGCI database.

Questions that arise as a result of receiving an ITF file are:

BGCI decided that it was interested in keeping as much detail as possible for all garden records; thus all the information received in ITF records is stored by BGCI.

Subsequent modifications to the BGCI database as a result of incorporating ITFs

After a period of receiving and reading ITF records, it was noticed that a number of errors were commonly made in composing them. The most important of these errors are:


The ITF has its limitations and there is room for further expansion and development. However, Version 01.00 is the only version in actual use for file transfer, five years after its publication. Botanic gardens have benefited greatly from this period of stability. We hope that a path for the rapid expansion and development, both of the BGCI database and regional botanic garden databases in several parts of the world, has been laid down, made possible by the ITF. We urge botanic gardens to work with us now so that we may exchange data and work together to build a truly international system to document the botanic garden plants of the world.

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