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Ewé: a web-based ethnobotanical database for storing and analysing data

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Ethnobotanical databases serve as repositories of traditional knowledge (TK), either at international or local scales. By documenting plant species with traditional use, and most importantly, the applications and modes of use of such species, ethnobotanical databases play a role in the conservation of TK and also provide access to information that could improve hypothesis generation and testing in ethnobotanical studies. Brazil has a rich medicinal flora and a rich cultural landscape. Nevertheless, cultural change and ecological degradation can lead to loss of TK. Here, we present an online database developed with open-source tools with a capacity to include all medicinal flora of Brazil. We present test data for the Leguminosae comprising a total of 2078 records, referred to here as use reports, including data compiled from literature and herbarium sources. Unlike existing databases, Ewé provides tools for the visualization of large datasets, facilitating hypothesis generation and meta-analyses. The Ewé database is currently available at www.ewedb.com.
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Database, 2020, 1–9
doi: 10.1093/database/baz144
Original article
Original article
Ewé: a web-based ethnobotanical database for
storing and analysing data
Estevão do Nascimento Fernandes de Souza *and Julie A. Hawkins
School of Biological Sciences, University of Reading, Whiteknights Rd, Reading, Berkshire RG66AS, UK
*Corresponding author: Tel.: +55 61 991749481; Email: estevaonfsouza@gmail.com
Citation details: Souza,E. N. F. and Hawkins,J. A. Ewé: a web-based ethnobotanical database for storing and analysing
data. Database (2020) Vol. 2020: article ID baz144; doi:10.1093/database/baz144
Received 1 July 2019; Revised 28 November 2019; Accepted 29 November 2019
Abstract
Ethnobotanical databases serve as repositories of traditional knowledge (TK), either at
international or local scales. By documenting plant species with traditional use, and
most importantly, the applications and modes of use of such species, ethnobotanical
databases play a role in the conservation of TK and also provide access to information
that could improve hypothesis generation and testing in ethnobotanical studies. Brazil
has a rich medicinal flora and a rich cultural landscape. Nevertheless, cultural change
and ecological degradation can lead to loss of TK. Here, we present an online database
developed with open-source tools with a capacity to include all medicinal flora of Brazil.
We present test data for the Leguminosae comprising a total of 2078 records, referred
to here as use reports, including data compiled from literature and herbarium sources.
Unlike existing databases, Ewé provides tools for the visualization of large datasets,
facilitating hypothesis generation and meta-analyses. The Ewé database is currently
available at www.ewedb.com.
Introduction
The documentation of ethnobotanical information is
essential for a better understanding of the relations between
humans and plants and to progress related disciplines such
as ethnopharmacology (1–3). Ethnobotanical databases can
facilitate data management and information sharing with
other researchers, optimizing the workflow for analysing
different datasets. Ethnobotanical databases, including
those of medicinally used plant species, are available and
many can be accessed online. These databases may have
an international focus, e.g. NAPRALERT, a database of
natural products that includes ethnobotanical data (4), or a
regional one, e.g. the Prelude database, which is focused on
African medicinal plant use (5). Others serve a specific pur-
pose such as the Medicinal Plant Names Services from Kew
Royal Botanical Gardens (available in http://mpns.kew.
org/) that curates medicinal plant names, enabling correct
nomenclature of medicinal species in order to assure safety
of use. In 2012, Ningthoujam et al. (6) presented an exten-
sive list of ethnopharmacological databases worldwide,
reviewing the diversity of approaches to storing ethnophar-
macological information. Databases currently available
are at the global, regional and national levels, as well as
documenting used by people belonging to particular eth-
nolinguistic groups; some capture unpublished data, others
cite published sources (Supplementary information 1).
Page2of9 Database, Vol. 2020, Article ID baz144
Most of these databases were developed for particular
user groups, non-academic or academic (7). The documen-
tation of traditional knowledge (TK) is associated with the
preservation of TK, recognizing that knowledge erosion
is being caused by cultural change, modernization and
access to western medicine (8–11). The documentation of
ongoing traditional medicine practice may also highlight
species for which there are concerns about safe use (10–13).
Furthermore, it contributes to the protection of intellectual
property in the context of bioprospecting (14), where TK
is identified as the property of communities that should
be the recipients of benefit-sharing (15), both by adding
value to TK and identifying ownership. The Access and
Benefit Sharing (ABS) mechanism was proposed in 1992 in
the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and imple-
mented in the Nagoya protocol (16). Although there is a
deficit in studies to track the effectiveness of ABS, a few
case studies are currently available, including one in Brazil
that shows a positive relationship between industry and
TK holders in supplying raw material, where there is a
commitment to use biodiversity with permission from the
traditional communities (17).
The increasing amount of data produced by ethnob-
otanists could also allow researchers to address more com-
prehensive and comparative questions in order to better
understand plant use and selection, yet data distribution
and availability are barriers to this (18). More collaborative
ethnobotanical research could be achieved by bridging the
gap between ethnobotanists and modern bioinformatics (7).
Ethnobotanical data are quite often spread across different
institutions or sources, such as publications, herbarium
specimen labels or unpublished theses and governmen-
tal reports that are difficult to access. Reducing the time
needed for data collection would facilitate large-scale anal-
ysis (7,19,20).
Over the past 30 years, the number of publications
describing ethnobotanical studies in Brazil has markedly
increased (21). The amount of information generated and
recorded in peer-reviewed scientific publications has the
potential to inform meta-analyses, but the information
should be made available in a useful format. In Brazil, Plant
Database (22) provides an extensive bibliographical data
compilation with more than 2000 papers; many papers
focused on pharmacological and drug discovery data, how-
ever, without specific information on TK and plant species
and are not publicly accessible. There is a need in Brazil for
a database that provides easy access and visualization of
species information.
Here, we present a web-based ethnobotanical database
designed to store medicinal plant data, together with tools
to conduct simple analyses and data exploration, includ-
ing geographical distribution. Open-source tools have been
used to build the database, recognizing that while funding
for maintenance and development of databases is difficult
to secure (23), a community of users is more likely to
contribute if the database can be modified to respond to
their changing research needs. Also, by compiling data
from both literature and herbarium sources, we expect
this database to be an important source of information
regarding TK of medicinal plant use in order to improve
meta-analyses research in ethnobotany. To exemplify the
uses of this database, we also discuss two studies that used
data from Ewé. The first study tests whether ethnobotanical
literature and herbarium label data concerning medicinal
plant uses are comparable (20). The second study uses the
data from Ewé to compare traditional use and pharmaco-
logical research effort (24).
Materials and Methods
Database development
A web-based app was developed using MEAN (MongoDB,
ExpressJS, NodeJS and AngularJS; available at http://
meanjs.org/). Information for each species was organized
in a spreadsheet with the following fields: family, genus,
species, authority, synonym, common name, use category
[etic, according to World Health Organization Interna-
tional Classification of Diseases 10 (WHO ICD-10)], use
category (emic, or as recorded in the field), plant part used,
mode of application, country, city, biome, latitude, longi-
tude, reference (paper author or herbarium name), collector
and origin (literature or herbarium). Subsequently, it was
exported in the JSON format for indexing and searching.
The database functionality is summarized in Figure 1.
The search tool output records as a list that can be orga-
nized according to any of the content elements (categories)
(Figure 2). The search field also allows the user to filter the
search by any term shown in the list. Selecting one record
opens the full use report for that record, including a map if
the record has coordinates (Figure 3).
Data are visualized as a tree map with three interactive
levels: family, genus and species. For all levels, the size of
the square is proportional to the number of records. Below
the tree map, there are four graphs: therapeutic applications
(top left), biome distribution (top right), plant parts used
(bottom left) and modes of application (bottom right).
These four histograms change according to the taxonomic
scale of the tree map. Also, user selection of one bar in each
histogram is possible (Figure 4).
Data collection
In order to demonstrate the functions of the database, trial
data were sourced from literature and herbarium specimens
Database, Vol. 2020, Article ID baz144 Page3of9
Figure 1. Organization of the Ewé database. The Ewé database has two functions: the search function and the visualize function. The search function
queries a species list. Results can be organized according to any of the content elements (categories) or a full use report can be generated, including
information on plant parts used, modes of application and the reference/source for that report. The visualize query provides visual information for
sets of ethnomedicinally used species according to taxonomic rank (family, genus or species), including interactive histograms of traditional use,
modes of application, plant parts used and biomes.
Figure 2. Search tool of Ewé, showing the number of records and data contents of each field of a chosen sample.
for the Leguminosae of Brazil where 2078 use reports were
generated for databasing. When a species was reported
in one publication to be used to treat for influenza and
headaches, the two therapeutic applications generated two
different use reports, though the species is the same. Where
necessary, geographical coordinates were assigned using
Google maps and the Brazilian Geographic and Statistical
Institute online data (https://cidades.ibge.gov.br/). Generic
and species names followed THE PLANT LIST (http://
www.theplantlist.org) and Missouri Botanical Garden’s
Page4of9 Database, Vol. 2020, Article ID baz144
Figure 3. Screen shot of a full record (Caesalpinia echinata Lam.) illustrating its described uses, the part used, traditional use, forms of use (modes
of application) and the paper reference from where it came from.
Figure 4. Detail of the visualization tool from Ewé showing graphs with therapeutic applications, biomes, plant parts used and modes of applications.
Database, Vol. 2020, Article ID baz144 Page5of9
Ta b l e 1 . Codes for WHO ICD-10 used to classify traditional information
WHO ICD-10 Code
Certain conditions originating in the perinatal period CCP
Congenital malformations, deformations and chromosomal abnormalities CMC
Diseases of the blood and blood-forming organs and certain disorders involving the immune mechanism DBI
Diseases of the circulatory system DCS
Diseases of the digestive system DDS
Diseases of the eye and adnexa DEA
Diseases of the ear and mastoid process DEM
Diseases of the femalegenito system DFS
Diseases of the genitourinary system DGS
Diseases of the musculoskeletal system and connective tissue DMC
Diseases of the nervous system DNS
Diseases of the respiratory system DRS
Diseases of the skin and subcutaneous tissue DSS
Endocrine, nutritional and metabolic diseases ENM
Certain infectious and parasitic diseases IPD
Mental and behavioural disorders MBD
Neoplasms NEO
WHO ICD-10 CODE
Symptoms, signs and abnormal clinical and laboratory findings, not elsewhere classified OTHERS
Injury, poisoning and certain other consequences of external causes
External causes of morbidity and mortality
Factors influencing health status and contact with health services
Codes for special purposes
Pregnancy, childbirth and the puerperium PCP
Tropicos database (http://www.tropicos.org), and they were
corrected using the Plantminer R script (25).
Publications citing medicinal uses of Leguminosae
species in Brazil were identified using Google Scholar and
searches of the following journals: Acta Botanica Brasilica,
Economic Botany,Fitoterapia,Flovet,Journal of Eth-
nobiology,Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine,
Journal of Ethnopharmacology,Journal of Medicinal
Plants Research,Revista Brasileira de Biociencias,Revista
Brasileira de Farmacognosia,Revista Brasileira de Plan-
tas Medicinais and Rodriguesia. Herbarium data were
extracted from the online list of herbarium and biological
collections from Brazil, Species Link ( http://splink.cria.org.
br/). The file was exported to Excel format, and a search
using the keywords ‘medicinal’ and ‘uses’ (in Portuguese)
was conducted in order to filter only the specimens with
medicinal information. The list of publications and herbaria
sourced here are presented in Supplementary information 2.
Data organization
In order to standardize the traditional uses, we adopted the
WHO ICD-10 as described in Tabl e 1, although there are
deficiencies associated with standardization (26). Biomes
were assigned according to the geographical coordinates
from each record, plotted on a map and intersected with
Ta b l e 2 . Classification of different medicinal preparations
into specific modes of application categories
Terms used in
database
Terms used in publications or specimens notes
Decoction Decoction
Infusion Tea, infusion, with water, with milk
Tincture Wine, alcoholic infusion, alcoholic extraction
Maceration Maceration
Paste Topic use, plaster
Juice Drink, juice
Wash Bath, soap, gargle, mouthwash
Food Edible, raw, in natura
Oil Oil
Syrup Syrup, with honey
Powder Powder/ inhale
the Brazilian Biomes shapefile in QGIS 2.2.0. Mode of
application data was classified according to Tabl e 2.
Database content
The Ewé database is currently available at www.ewedb.
com. In total, 2078 records were compiled to date. These
were sourced from 108 publications (1331 records) and 54
herbaria (747 records). Until now, Ewé is focused on the
Page6of9 Database, Vol. 2020, Article ID baz144
Leguminosae from Brazil, with 322 species in 117 genera
with medicinal uses. For all the databased records, 1165
(56%) indicate therapeutic applications (traditional/WHO
uses), 948 (45%) indicate plant parts used and 790 (38%)
indicate the modes of application (Supplementary informa-
tion 3). All six Brazilian biomes are indicated in our records,
with Caatinga and the Cerrado as the best represented.
Peer-reviewed scientific literature provided 87% of ther-
apeutic applications, 95% of modes of application and 95%
of parts used. Data sourced from herbarium voucher labels
contributed to 86% of cited geographical localities.
Discussion
The internet has contributed to an explosion of data sharing
among scientists, including ethnobotanists, thus contribut-
ing toward a better understanding of the relation of humans
and plant use (27,28). Nevertheless, much ethnobotanical
data is still difficult to access, sometimes as the result of
inadequate data management (27). Aside from storing a
large dataset, we presented a database capable of data
visualization permitting data exploration. To the best of
our knowledge, Ewé is the first medicinal plant database
to provide tools for data storage and visualization for
Brazilian plants. Research can be facilitated using visual-
ization tools, since hypothesis generation is supported by
examining patterns and gaining insight into the data (29).
Geographical areas poor in data can be identified, so future
studies can be directed to areas of deficient knowledge.
In Ewé, we compile herbarium voucher label data and
data from ethnobotanical publications. The compilation of
these data have already permitted hypothesis testing, exem-
plifying the value of such data to research programmes. In
the first instance, we were able to compare the data from
the different sources (20). Our hypothesis was that herbaria
hold significant ethnobotanical data that are complemen-
tary to the data from the published literature. We found that
species reported, their therapeutic applications, modes of
application and the plant part used were congruent between
herbarium and literature reports. Though herbarium labels
are not as rich as literature reports, we were able to use
the mapping facility in Ewé to demonstrate that the spatial
distribution of the use was greater than previously reported.
This study, as well as validating our inclusion of herbarium
data in Ewé, has highlighted an underutilized source of data
for ethnobotanical studies.
In another study, we use data from Ewé to address a
novel hypothesis. Our hypothesis was that ethnomedici-
nally important plant species and lineages have been more
often characterized phytochemically or pharmacologically.
With the data provided by Ewé, a phylogenetic investigation
showed a phylogenetic overdispersion of medicinal uses of
the Legumes in Brazil (24). In support of our hypothesis,
this study revealed the relationship between pharmaco-
logical research effort and ethnobotanical use, confirming
that research effort had followed traditional use. However,
because the Ewé database is rich in associated data, we were
able to extract the frequency of ethnobotanical reports for
each species as well as therapeutic application data to gain a
more nuanced understanding of the relationship. The study
was possible because of the extensive data compilation for
Ewé, presenting data beyond the species list.
Challenges in integrating data from different sources
into a database, or even from different regional databases
into a more comprehensive one, are related to data stan-
dardization and data management (6). Efforts to provide a
common standard for ethnobotanical data were made by
the International Working Group on Taxonomic Databases
for Plant Sciences, who presented the Economic Botany
Data Collection Standard (EBDCS) (30). Although not
all fields proposed by EBDCS are present in Ewé, many
fields such as source of information on use, use, plant part
used, organism, vernacular names and modes of application
are present here. Fields such as season of use, conserva-
tion status, ratings or popularity, problems and potential,
though important, can be difficult to source from available
material. In the future, Ewé can expand to include primary
data, together with information related to season of use and
popularity can be included if available.
The therapeutic application categories proposed by
EBDCS are the same ones present in WHO ICD-10 and
have been successfully applied by ethnobotanists when
compiling TK data. At the same time, it has been argued
that not all plants and therapeutic applications can follow
this standard and that a new classification category such
as Cultural Diseases and Disorders should be included
(31). The WHO ICD-10 categories were also used in the
Ewé database to facilitate data classification so users can
consult the WHO website and search for the appropriate
term. This classification also allows information from
Ewé to be compared with other studies that used, at
least in part, the same classification (32–35). Nevertheless,
traditional medicinal use that were commonly cited such
as pain, fever and inflammation could not be associated
with any specific medical condition on the WHO ICD-10
standard and therefore were assigned to ‘others’. While
pain or fever describes a symptom that can be related to
a diversity of diseases, cultural perception of such diseases
might change across different communities, creating one
more obstacle for study comparisons. Recognizing the
deficiencies of any classification, we also provide the
terms or classifications of therapeutic use from the original
sources. By recording the emic (original) terminology for
a disease or illness, together with the ICD mapping, it
Database, Vol. 2020, Article ID baz144 Page7of9
is possible to contribute to the conservation of TK even
if it is related to a cultural disease not present at WHO
ICD.
Herbarium vouchers are potential sources of ethnob-
otanical information to populate databases, as shown in
Ewé, where these records were responsible for 86% of
geographical localities. As efforts in digitization for herbar-
ium specimens increase (36–40), standardization is needed
and the Darwin Core standard is used to achieve this (41).
However, core descriptors do not include any ethnobotani-
cal fields so data describing TK present in herbarium vouch-
ers are not captured. At the same time, herbarium vouchers
have been described as important sources of ethnobotan-
ical data (20,42–44), thus the inclusion of ethnobotanical
information in the core descriptors for digitization could
be beneficial.
Database sustainability is recognized as a significant
problem for the biological sciences (6,45–47). Of the 80
databases that were listed by Ningthoujam et al. (6)in
2012, we found that 53 (66%) were no longer available,
highlighting sustainability as a problem for ethnobotan-
ical databases. Similarly, of the ethnobotanical databases
cited in Supplementary information 1, during the reviewing
process, 26% became inoperable. Being an open-source
scheme, Ewé can be used on a private server as a research
tool, and users can modify the code for their own needs.
Furthermore, as an open-source scheme, the database can
evolve to meet the changing requirements. Also, Ewé could
function as a collaborative database, where researchers
can include their own data for private use but would
be encouraged to contribute to the publically available
data.
The data currently held in the Ewé database were com-
piled from publically available sources, either publications
or herbaria, the last mainly from the CRIA Species Link and
Reflora programmes. Incorporating knowledge already in
the public domain into a database might help defend against
biopiracy (48). In the case of Ewé, the sites and dates of
use can be extracted, providing evidence of the localities
and time of use. There are challenges associated with the
inclusion of new data as Ewé grows, and potentially pri-
mary data, prior informed consent (PIC) should be used
as a way to guarantee proper identification of Traditional
Knowledge holders in accordance to the Nagoya protocol
on ABS.
As an online database, we expect Ewé to be a source
of information and knowledge sharing between ethnob-
otanists in Brazil. Although at the present moment, Ewé
is focused on the medicinal use of the Leguminosae, more
taxa could be included, perhaps the entire medicinal flora
of Brazil.
Acknowledgements
The present work was possible thanks to Coordenação de Aper-
feiçoamento de Pessoal de Nível Superior (CAPES-Brazil) and the
program ‘Science Without Borders’ scholarship for the first author
(BEX:7595-13-1).
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... The generational loss of traditional medicine knowledge is considered to be one of the greatest risks to using ethnopharmacology in the drug discovery process, along with the loss of the natural resources due to overexploitation and/or economic activities (Buenz et al. 2018). Therefore, the establishment of ethnobotanical databases to register plant species with traditional uses, their applications, and modes of uses constitutes a valid strategy for conservation of traditional knowledge, as recently reported for the Brazilian database Ewé (Souza and Hawkins 2020). ...
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