Geographical Schemes

"This interest group is coordinating the development of a geographical scheme, including standard names, abbreviations, and boundaries, that is practically useful for managing occurrence data and species distributions."

interest group
Image by USGS

Geographical Schemes

Charter for a TDWG Interest Group


  • Francisco Pando - Real Jardín Botánico-CSIC, Madrid
  • Nicolas Bailly - FishBase/SeaLifeBase, Q‑quatics, Philippines; Beaty Biodiversity Museum and Sea Around Us, University of British Columbia, Vancouver
  • Visotheary Ung - Muséum national d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris


Knowledge of species’ geographical distributions is critical to understanding evolutionary processes, changes in ecological communities, and now most importantly the conservation of biodiversity. Ultimately, our knowledge of species distributions comes from assembling records of specimens and observations made by many individuals over many years. Tasks required to compile occurrence data include documenting locations when specimens or observations are collected, extracting and harmonizing data from many sources, georeferencing collecting localities without geocoordinates, applying quality control, and analyzing occurrence data against other geospatial phenomena. Almost all of these tasks can be facilitated if the biological records are connected to a common scheme of hierarchically organized named areas or geospatial entities.

The most commonly used spatial hierarchies are based on administrative entities, such as countries, states, provinces, counties, etc., but typically these entities have only moderate correspondence with natural features that influence species distributions. For these reasons one of the earliest standards created and ratified by TDWG was the World Geographic Scheme for Recording Plant Distributions (WGSRPD, Hollis & Brummit 1992; Brummit 2001), which provided a hierarchical system of terrestrial entities that better reflect biogeographic regions while also specifying their relationships to administrative entities. Despite the increasing prevalence of georeferenced species occurrence data, an area-based scheme to present, retrieve and communicate species spatial distribution and associate information remains relevant and needed. The approach of WGSRPD, combining adminstrative limits and biogeographical concepts in a hierarchical scheme, has been a success, as the hundreds of papers citing this standard prove. And its utility is not diminishing; in just 2020, Google Scholar identifies 43 papers that cite the WGSRPD.

Since publication of the version 2, full or partial representations of the WGSRPD have been offered as an Access database (mdb), ESRI shape files (shp), and GeoJSON. TDWG typically receives several inquiries every year about updating WGSRPD, even offers of assistance, but without an active interest group, the expressions of interest have never been coordinated into an actual update. This interest group will provide that coordination.

Purpose and Scope

The purpose of this interest group is to coordinate the development of one or more geographical schemes, including standard names, abbreviations, and boundaries, that are practically useful for managing occurrence data and species distributions. This interest group will update the WGSRPD, will apply the same approach to marine areas to make the coverage global, and will maintain the standard(s) going forward. In addition to the text, areas will be provided under various digital formats (database, GeoJSON, shapefiles, …).


  • Announce the formation of this group and invite interested persons and groups to participate;
  • Evaluate alternatives, in consultation with technical experts (e.g., TDWG’s Technical Architecture Group, Open GIS Consortium (OGC), the TDWG Vocabularies task group), and determine the most appropriate data structures and digital format(s) for representing a hierarchical scheme of geospatial entities;
  • Update the existing standard by incorporating recent changes to administrative areas and re-casting content into the structure and format(s) determined above;
  • Extend the standard to include marine areas by applying the same methods.

One or more task groups will be proposed after the participants have agreed upon a more detailed work plan.

Becoming Involved

Please email the convenors to express your interest in participating. Please describe your affiliation(s) and any relevant skills or resources you can bring to the effort.

The interest group intends to conduct written exchanges via the TDWG workspace in Slack (geoschemes), and weekly conference calls via Zoom. Please email the TDWG secretariat ( to be invited to the TDWG workspace in Slack, and email the convenors to request an invitation to the Zoom meetings.

Interest group members should also “watch” the [new] repository in GitHub. (Requires a GitHub account, which is free.) GitHub users watching a repository can receive email notifications about issues being discussed, as well as file updates. (Please watch Peter Desmet’s presentation (video) about how TDWG interest groups are using GitHub.)



  • Brummitt, R.K., Pando, F., Hollis, S., Brummitt, N.A. (2001). World geographical scheme for recording plant distributions. Edit. 2. TDWG Standard no2. Pittsburg (PA, USA): Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation, Carnegie Mellon University.
  • Hollis, S. & R.K. Brummitt. 1992. World Geographical Scheme for Recording Plant Distributions. TDWG Standard no2. Pittsburgh (PA, USA): Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation, Carnegie Mellon University.