One of the most widely used software programs to manage vegetation data is Turboveg. Although, in theory, once could use any database tool (say MS Access), Turboveg is custom-designed for vegetation scientists and allows entering, storing, selecting, and exporting vegetation data. It has been released in the 1990s and has gained wide popularity since then.
Stephan: I am trained as a vegetation scientist, which I practiced for many years, with fieldwork in the Netherlands and France, but nowadays I could call myself an eco- informatician. In the last 20 years, my main interest became programming, which I became passionate about.
VIK: Do you have formal training in programming or are you self-trained?
Stephan: I am self-trained, but consulted professionals a few times when I met the limits of my knowledge.
VIK: How did the whole story with Turboveg start? In the accompanying JVS article (Hennekens & Schaminée 2001, Journal of Vegetation Science 12: 589-591), you wrote that Turboveg was written to help out the national vegetation classification in The Netherlands. Was Turboveg the first electronic database program for vegetation data?
Stephan: Oh no, Turboveg was certainly not the first application for building up vegetation database. Actually, for building up the national vegetation database, we used a program called VEGBASE, which was written by folks from the university of Groningen. Later on I started to write my own software program for handling vegetation data because VEGBASE didn’t meet all our demands. We discovered that it is much more productive if you can control the software development yourself. Turboveg was born, and the name was proposed by Joop Schaminée because it performed better than VEGBASE, which was for me a kind of prototype.
VIK: Where do most Turboveg users come from?
Stephan: Most users are from Europe. The first user from outside the Netherlands was a Polish guy called Marcin Szańkowski. He visited our institute and saw Turboveg at work. He immediately saw how useful the program could be for his work and asked for a copy. Afterwards, we had lot of email exchange because Marcin was able to track down a lot of inconsistencies in the program. Later on, John Rodwell, working a Lancaster University that time, invited me to take part in a project called the Darwin Initiative. The purpose was to teach the participants, coming from various European countries, the usage of Turboveg. Milan Chytrý was one the participants. The Darwin Initiative was the start of quite a few national vegetation databases. A good example is the Czech database, which became one of the largest and best-documented databases in Europe.
VIK: What language is TURBOVEG written in? Why did you choose that particular language?
Stephan: Turboveg v2 is written in Clipper (became later xHarbour, an open source language), which is a kind of dBase dialect. It’s a language that dates from the Stone Age, yet powerful enough to build a satisfying program. For building Turboveg v3 I use Delphi (object Pascal), which enables me to build a much more robust and versatile tool.
VIK: I can well imagine that the success you had with TURBOVEG is also attributed to that fact that you take user concerns seriously. I am always amazed at how fast you answer my e-mails. On average, how many e-mails per week do you get from users who seek for help?
Stephan: Yes, I certainly take the users seriously, whether they have paid for the software or not. You know, it’s kind of flattering when people use your software, but on the other hand you feel the pressure to deliver a reliable program. In the past Turboveg wasn’t all that reliable and had to spend many hours improving the software after a user reported yet another bug. I guess Luboš Tichý (father of JUICE) has had the same experience.
Concerning the e-mails I get nowadays it’s not so bad. Mostly I get request from people who want to use the program for their vegetation study.
VIK: The current version, TURBOVEG v2, should be soon superseded, by a much-anticipated new version: TURBOVEG v3. Could you name three exciting new features of this version that users can look forward to?
Stephan: Forget the word ‘soon’. Building a full functional new version is a big work, especially because it is built up from the ground (again).
Three exciting new features? First of all, all the data in a single comfortable SQL database and not in hundreds of dBase files. Second, a full functional GIS build in, and third a flexible database model supporting different database dictionaries (v2) and many different (European) taxonomies.
VIK: When will you release the new version?
Stephan: Good question. Maybe 2016.
VIK: In that article, you mentioned that Turboveg can be divided into several databases which 'may consist of up to 100 000 relevés each'. Back then, such large digitized data bases were probably outside of people's imagination. Yet, today, TURBOVEG v3 is hosting half a million phytosociological records of the European Vegetation Archive. Back then, did you actually believe that Turboveg would host such large data volumes, one day?
Stephan: Actually the current European Vegetation Archive already contains 945,000 vegetation plots. But no, back then I had never the vision of such large databases.
VIK: Oh my god, I did not realize it contained that much data, already.
VIK: Do you already have a vision for TURBOVEG v4? What would it look like?
Stephan: No way, there will not be a version 4, unless someone else has the courage to start such an enterprise.
VIK: I have recently switched from Windows to a Mac and am curious whether there will be a Turboveg version for Mac or Linux, one day?
Stephan: Both Turboveg v2 and v3 can work on Linux and Mac if you have Wine installed. Wine, an acronym for "Wine Is Not an Emulator", is a compatibility layer capable of running Windows applications on several POSIX-compliant operating systems. Check https://www.winehq.org/about/
VIK: In percentages, how much of your daily routine is made up of maintaining Turboveg?
Stephan: Depend on which version we are talking about. V2 requires very little time to maintain. Only now and then it needs some tweaks. V3 is a different story because I am in the middle of the development of it. It’s a crazy enterprise and consumes a lot of my free time. Unfortunately I don’t have a dedicated project for it.
VIK: What was your motivation to write a new version?
Stephan: Already a long time ago I wanted to write a completely new version (I am not so happy with the current version 2), but never had the courage, since it means a massive amount of work on top of daily obligations. But when Borja Jíménez-Alfaro's Braun-Blanquet project was initiated the need for a proper database became urgent. That was what triggered me to think about a proper database model, that was flexible enough to deal with the many different database strictures, but even more important with the many different taxonomies in Europe. Now, after two years of investment, with already having built up a monster of a database I can say that both Turboveg v3 and its underlying database model work fine to accommodate the questions.
I also would like to mention that without the participation of the folks from Masaryk University in Brno (Milan Chytrý, Borja Jíménez-Alfaro, and Ilona Knollova), especially EVA (European Vegetation Archive) never would have become what it now is. Nowadays Ilona has a full time job maintaining EVA.
VIK: What is the current stage of development?
Stephan: I have probably done 60% of the work, but even if arrived at 100% there still needs to be some investment for tweaking the program, not to mention the bugs (:-() that will popup.
VIK: Do you already have a user group for the prototype version?
Stephan: For the moment the user group is rather small, and only includes people who are working on the EVA and sPlot databases (http://www.idiv-biodiversity.de/sdiv/workshops/workshops-2013/splot). sPlot has also adopted the Turboveg database model as a base for its data repository.
VIK: When was the last time you went out into the field with a notepad and pencil in your hand?
Stephan: Oh, that must have been 25 years ago. Those were the days :-)
VIK: Thanks for the interview, Stephan!