Friday, 19 January 2018

Changing recording demographics

When we took on the Hoverfly Recording Scheme (HRS) in 1991 the ways in which data were submitted and absorbed were utterly different from today. Likewise, the contact we had with recorders was also very different. Most people submitted records on cards or via a bespoke database such as RECORDER or MAPMATE. We did a great deal of the data entry and mainly communicated by letter or through the HRS Newsletter. Feedback was inevitably intermittent and we could control the pace at which we worked. Data entry was confined to the winter months, whilst we had the summer to do our own field work.

Scrolling forward 25 years, we have seen a paradigm shift in which databases have substantially disappeared from the scene, spreadsheets are the main way in which data arrive, and we now extract some data direct from posts on Facebook, Flickr, iSpot etc. We mainly communicate via the UK Hoverflies Facebook page and provide more permanent feedback on this blog. The HRS Newsletter continues and does reach some of our traditional recorders who don't 'do' social media. This shift is clearly illustrated in Figure 1, which was prepared by Stuart for his talk to the Huntingdon Flora and Fauna Society last night.
Figure 1. Sources of data arriving at the HRS, 1991 to 2018.

There has also been a remarkable change in recruitment of new recorders. There are several ways in which one can define a new recorder: the critical issue is probably to define those who genuinely make a regular or substantial contribution to the dataset rather than those one-off casual records that add lots of names but very few records. Thus, we can see from Figure 2 that until around 2006, the numbers of new recruits were relatively small; often below 30 per year. There are two reasons that explain the rise from 2006 onwards.

Firstly, we became a lot more active running training courses from around 2005 onwards. Initially we were constrained by the need to use venues where people brought their own microscopes or used those 'scopes provided at the venue. This constraint was removed in 2009 when a grant from the OPAL fund allowed us to buy 13 microscopes which we now transport to far-flung venues. So, we would like to think that our efforts to train and enthuse have had some impact.

Around the same time, iSpot and 'Wild About Britain' became available as a way for people to get help with identification of their finds. It encouraged a new photographic recording community and set the scene for much greater inter-active recording. In reality, interactive media have probably played a far bigger role in growing the recorder community, which is most obvious from Figure 2. This graph uses two different metrics to define a new recorder: one based on regular submission of 5 or more records yearly, and the other based on the total number of records submitted, with 250 as the threshold for a 'new' recorder. Both systems tell a similar story, with a clear jump in activity from around 2011 and a further jump around 2014 when the UK Hoverflies Facebook page really became established.

Figure 2. Metrics for defining 'new recorders'. The upper graph comprises the numbers of recorders in a given year, whilst the lower one illustrates recruitment of major contributors.
This year, we are pretty well up to date with importing data into the HRS database, so the figures for numbers of records yearly are almost 'real-time'. They tell a similar story to the numbers of recorders, but really highlight the impact of the Facebook group, which I think we can say with confidence has almost doubled the numbers of records entering the system (Figure 3). The total for 2017 is likely to climb a little more because we always see a slow trickle of records over the year after a big influx in January. Whether 2017 will ultimately overtake 2016 remains to be seen, but it is highly likely. I suspect we have a little way further to go before a new asymptote is reached, but my guess is that the new level of recording will probably lie somewhere between 60 and 70,000 records annually.

Figure 3. Numbers of records on the HRS database

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Diptera training courses

Stuart recently put together the map figured here to show where we had given training courses over the past 25 years. The vast majority were in the past ten years but we did start running courses way back when we ran one at the now defunct Rogate Field Station for the Ecological Studies Society linked to Birkbeck College.

Our ability to provide courses was greatly improved by grants from the OPAL fund that facilitated the purchase of a camera-microscope and a set of microscopes for running courses away from traditional field centres. The map tells the story and shows how effective the OPAL money has been in facilitating training. Some additional funding has been provided by Natural England and by Dipterists Forum which, together, have made it even more practical to fill the car with equipment and travel to a far-off location. The longest journey so far was Shetland. We have also had inquires from Ireland and from France but as yet have not managed to take them further .... maybe one day!

What the map does not show is the numbers of times we have run courses at particular locations. For example, we have run courses at Preston Montford on perhaps 15-20 occasions. Likewise we have run numerous courses at Ring Haw Field Station for the local Wildlife Trust and have travelled to Glasgow on at least half a dozen occasions. Most others are single or a couple of visits. Where possible we try to do a couple of basic courses and then do an intermediate follow-up course to help with difficult genera.

In the last two years we have scaled back our efforts. This year we only have a couple of courses scheduled. If my health permits, then hopefully we will do a few more next winter - I have had several inquiries and we are keen to get back on the road. So, hopefully there will be a few more dots on maps by April 2019!

Locations where training courses in Diptera and Hoverfly identification have been provided  by Stuart Ball & Roger Morris since 1993

Monday, 25 December 2017

Social media make a big difference to biological recording

When Stephen Plummer suggested to me that the HRS needed a Facebook page back in 2013 I was a little ambivalent because I am not really one for social media. Those who know me can attest to me also being a total technophobe - I don't 'do' mobile phones and struggle to understand Android technology on my Mother's iPad! Even so, I cautiously gave the 'go-ahead' if Stephen was happy to set the page up. It has been quite a revellation and now I am convinced that if run properly this sort of media definitely has a place in skills development and creation of a community with similar interests.

I liken the Facebook Group to a 'virtual society'. In some ways, these media have replaced the old Natural History Societies, although I think there remains a place for them because people do like to meet and I expect there would be demand for 'field meetings'. I did think of running such meetings but hit the immediate problem of insurance - these days you need insurance to run meetings on many sites (we get asked for evidence of insurance for DF meetings). So, we still need organisations such as Dipterists Forum - and we need people to join them and to participate in running them. I would urge members of the Facebook group to join DF and get involved in its events, or perhaps better still start to lead events locally for the FB group under the aegis of Dipterists Forum.

I follow several other Facebook groups and don't get the feeling that they have quite the same 'community' feel about them. I'm not wholly sure why this is but think it may be because they have a much wider focus. I also wonder whether the key to creating coherence is to provide feedback to the group about the information they are gathering. In the UKH and UKH larvae groups we do see a narrative developing. Other groups possibly need something similar.

So, here's to the UK Hoverflies Facebook Group (and many thanks Stephen). There is a great core of active members who I think will be able to keep the ethos going long after I have bowed out. Meanwhile, I think it is time to plan so activities that people can participate in. We had our Carrot Flower Challenge last year - I hope we have another attempt on this in 2018 with more rewarding results. We might get people in northern and western areas looking for Microdon larvae and of course it is possible that some people will head off to look for target species such as Caliprobola speciosa and Doros profuges.

Sunday, 24 December 2017

Time to develop a succession plan for the HRS

It is now 26 years since Stuart and I took on the role of scheme organisers for the Hoverfly Recording Scheme. We think we have made a reasonable difference and that we have given the scheme the necessary impetus to be forward-thinking and inclusive. Whilst our publications track record is a bit stuttering, we have managed to produce two provisional atlases and a species status review. We might have produced more papers, but that will hopefully be redressed in the coming months.

We are, however, only the custodians of the scheme. It is not our scheme and having made such a huge commitment we would like the scheme to live on well after us. If that is to happen we must recognise that there is a time to hand over the baton. That time is fast approaching. My health has taken a turn for the worse and both of us are itching to do things that will absorb a lot of our time and energy. We really need to start to hand over the reigns and to help to guide the scheme into a new management team. Our vision at this stage is that we should be booted up into the senior management - to be called upon for advice when needed, but not to do the day-to-day organisation and management. In other words we should become 'non-executive Directors' whilst a new team takes over the role of scheme organisers and figureheads.

We think there will need to be a transitional stage where we gradually ease out of the management chairs and let others take over; more than two people will be needed. If one looks at what is involved, there are several distinct strands:
  • Providing taxonomic advice and a source of specimen identification
  • Validating and digitising data
  • Managing incoming datasets and cleaning them before they are absorbed into the database
  • Managing the database
  • Writing newsletters
  • Setting the sense of direction
  • Identifying issues worthy of investigation and then undertaking the analysis
  • Developing the website
We have an excellent team in Ian and Joan on assistance with identification and there are several of the Facebook group who are showing considerable promise in this respect. I think biggest issue lies in the need for a pool of people to help with data extraction from the UK Hoverflies Facebook page, somebody to act as a central repository for datasets (they might be separate from the database manager), a database manager who is familiar with RECORDER and other databases and one or more analysts. We also need people who understand hoverfly ecology - Geoff and Ellie are ideal for dealing with larval stages, but perhaps we also need somebody who has a good feel for other aspects of hoverfly biology and biogeography? This is an opportunity to develop a much 'younger' team and there should be space for relative newcomers to become established.

The big question is how such a team should be organised? Do we need a formal or informal 'society'? Whilst we don't want to create a bureaucratic edifice, there is probably a need to develop a system that allows turnover of participants and recruitment of figureheads. As yet I don't have the answers, but I can pose lots of questions. The one thing I am clear about is that I cannot carry on in the role I provide - if I do so we will not find new 'leadership' and should I be unavailable the scheme would be rudderless; that would not be a good thing for one of the most dynamic and active schemes in the country.

Saturday, 23 December 2017

Progress: British Flies - and introduction and key to families

In late November I posted a piece that was intended primarily as market research, but also to alert the world of Natural History to the possibility of a new guide to flies. There were lots of positive comments on my associated Facebook posts but also a few question marks as to whether such a book was really needed. Stuart and I firmly believe there is a need and that the moment is right to write such a book. Leave it any later and we may be too old (or gone). Even though there are quite a few Dipteists who could write such a book, most have other priorities. There are far fewer who have done as much testing of keys and understand the needs of novices. So, unless we do something nobody will!

Last Monday, Stuart and I met the publications unit of the Field Studies Council to discuss their possible role as publisher and to explore what they would want from us. I could not say anything in November about this meeting for obvious reasons. Our discussions were very positive and ended with an agreement that we (Stuart and I) would aim to deliver the package of text and illustrations by the end of 2019 or early 2020, witha view to publication in 2020. The timing is tight but we can do it provided we get cracking.

The really great thing about working with the FSC is that they understand keys and what works. They are also set-up to produce books that will have a long life-time in print and are not vastly expensive. The critical issue is to cover costs but there is not the same need for a particular profit margin as would be the case with a traditional publisher. The FSC model is to print sufficient books to meet expected market needs in the relatively short-term in order to minimise storage of large volumes of paper. The print run would be geared to anticipated demand and would be repeated at intervals when the need arose; thus keeping the book in print for as long as it was needed but allowing break points for revision if needed. We think the initial print run would be somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 units. Printing would be in the UK, which has a positive impact on the book's carbon footprint and keeps jobs in the UK too. The basic proportions are as described previously:

  1. It will be a B4 book running to between 400 and 450 pages and composed of 3 sections:
  • A substantial introduction. This would cover areas needed to understand the keys such as explaining the taxonomy and anatomical terms. An account of their life styles, biology and ecology of both adults and larvae, including treatment of medical and economic importance. Some very general coverage of the flies of macro-habitats.
  • Keys to the families that occur in Britain. These have been rigorously tested and developed over the past 10 years. This key has been used in previous FSC courses run by us, as well a substantial number of other courses run by Dipterists Forum. We have some ideas about how to arrange the keys in ways that would make them a little less daunting to the novice.
  • Descriptions of each family intended to be laid out in double page spreads with text on the left-hand page facing illustrations. The detail in each family description will vary, with some of the more obscure, small families perhaps having a half page with one illustration whilst the larger and better known families (especially those where there is a Recording Scheme) better covered with more text and several pages of photographs. Family descriptions will include coverage of the larval biology, where known, and a header summarising things like the number of species on the British list, their size range, the ease or difficulty of identification and whether it is covered by a Recording Scheme.
  1. It would NOT aim to cover all species, even in popular families, but should be regarded as a companion to such guides as the Larger Brachycera, Syrphidae and Tipuloideae.
  2. It would be illustrated by a combination of field photos, detailed photos of preserved specimens and line drawings to highlight specific features. It may not be possible to obtain field shots of some of the more obscure families especially where the species are very small. At this stage, we are anticipating full colour throughout, but we may have to re-think if printing costs are too high.

We discussed ideas such as crowd-funding and pre-publication offers. Happily there is no need for crowd-funding (at least we don't think so). There will be a pre-publication offer and we will be working to maximise the numbers of people who order a copy in advance - that should help to ensure that the book covers costs and that the shelves in Telford are not stacked high with unsold paper! It is too early to say much about price, but the market research from my last post indicated that the likely upper ceiling for such a volume would be in the £40-£50 range. We think that the final price should be somewhat below £40 and just possibly below £30 (subject to price changes in the next two years).

We have quite a bit of structural planning to complete and need to construct a project management chart to track progress - that is one of the jobs for me this Christmas. After that, we need to do some writing - the introduction is going to be a challenge. We have draft species accounts that need a thorough going-over by Graham and Tony. Nevertheless, I think we should have the text in place for peer-review by the end of 2018. The bigger challenge will be to populate the illustrations. I will be doing a lot of internet trawling this winter to establish what is available; after which we will just have to go and find the animals ourselves! That will be fun, but very demanding.

So, with any luck we will be providing a stocking-filler for Christmas 2020.

Friday, 15 December 2017

Parataxonomy works!

Loyal readers (as with radio 4's 'More or Less') will recall that I have spent quite a bit of field work this year collecting fungus gnats and craneflies for their respective schemes. I have shown how I store the samples and have briefly reported back on the numbers of species recorded on my Scottish jaunt.

The other day, Peter Chandler sent me details of what I had recorded this autumn from my 'constant effort site' - Mitcham Common. It transpires that I did moderately well and recorded 120 gnat species and a further 11 species of Drosophilds. Not bad for a bit of parataxonomy.

So, here is a small chart to show how the list built up. In theory the list is heading towards a fairly low asymptote but I think this is really just a function of the time of year, with numbers rapidly diminishing in late October and November. There should be a new rise next year once the spring fauna kicks in, so it will be interesting to see what else I add next year. Peter tells me that the very richest sites have lists approaching 300 species, which is way beyond any of my expectations. Nevertheless, I am hopeful of getting maybe to 170 species.

Numbers of fungus gnats recorded from Mitcham Common in Autumn 2017 represented as the total species caught each date, the number of additions to the list and then the running total for species recorded.
Hopefully this will encourage others to think about doing similar surveys. Many recording scheme organisers will look at preserved specimens, especially if they help to fill in gaps or improve phenology data. Have a chat to them before bombarding them. It is definitely one way we can improve coverage.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

What support do Recording Schemes need?

In a thread resulting from one of my earlier posts on the NFBR Facebook page, Steve Whitbread mentioned that the NFBR 2015 conference discussed what support might be given to Recording Schemes? I wonder how many schemes were there?

For me, the issue of external support is a difficult area. Many years ago, I was tasked with shifting the protected species role of English Nature in the Wakefield area to the voluntary sector. It did not go down at all well! Perhaps the biggest gripe was 'we used to do all of this until English Nature established a team of Protected Species Officers and insisted that it was their role and statutory duty' ... 'now you have no money it is conveniently being passed back to us'. I had a lot of sympathy but I was simply the messenger! We quickly found that it was not possible for the local Bat Groups to administer the volume of calls coming in and that we could not escape at least part of the workload!

I left the team about a year later and have no real idea how things panned out, but I really felt it was a bit much to expect volunteers to deal with the huge administrative burden of taking calls, organising a visits by somebody and then reporting back. That was not what the bat workers signed up to do - they loved bats and wanted to do something for them. I expect some dropped out as a result - and understandably so.

As a result of that experience and of dealing with the Humber Wildfowl Refuge - where I had to do the same thing, I realised that it was not a great idea for voluntary bodies to have too many ties to Government bodies, and especially logistical ties. That has made me quite fiercely independent and is one reason why the HRS tries to be as independent as possible - indeed we took on the scheme and did the initial data assembly because BRC did not have the resources to do the digitisation - so the problem goes a very long way back!

Having also been tasked with winding down support for Estuary Partnerships and been referred to as 'the man that wants to close Estuary Partnerships' the message is even starker - if you pump-prime a project that leads to people's jobs and livelihoods, you are setting yourself up for a fall when you cut funding. Somebody has to deal with that issue and I have had more than my fair share in my life! I would not wish it on anybody - it is not a career-maker it is the job given to somebody who will never be looked upon in a favourable light because all they bring to the Board papers is negative news on how nobody is picking up the reigns and taking over funding - it casts very unfavourably on you and undermines your morale!

The voice of experience!

So, when I hear talk of support for Recording Schemes I start to think about good and bad models. Any model that gives schemes the idea that they can just pass a job over to somebody else will lead to dependency and this will weaken rather than strengthen schemes. For the most part, it won't do much for schemes dealing with difficult taxa anyway because their biggest challenge is trying to cope with the vast volumes of data that ensue because the scheme is made accessible to people who don't have the taxonomic skills but do want to contribute. Taxonomic skills are the primary bottleneck in most of the invertebrate schemes I suspect. Synnergistic relationships with bigger schemes like butterflies, moths and dragonflies might be possible because there are probably enough skilled people to deflect some time into building relationships.

BUT, if you are the organiser of a scheme that barely anybody beyond a very small nucleus of specialists can ID, there is not much anybody can do to increase that nucleus without you actually having to take the job on! After all, they cannot do the training - it is you, the scheme organiser who will have to do it. And at a roughly 5% hit rate you will have to run an awful lot of courses to generate new recording skill, let alone people who are willing to take on some of the administrative burden.

So, my plea to anybody thinking about how to support schemes - please remember that in many ways, more support is actually likely to mean more work for the existing scheme organiser  if it focusses on training and capacity-building! In this respect, the HRS does not need more support for capacity-building, it simply needs a few more people to take on the training role. If we had that capacity, there would also be a need to develop additional sets of specimens for use in courses (we have all the talks and a good method of teaching that we can teach to others). There might also be a need for another camera microscope and possibly access to a store of microscopes that could be couriered to the venue. So, it would certainly be worth looking into the logistics of setting up a pool of equipment that might be shared by a group of LERCS so that all the trainer had to do was to arrive with powerpoint presentations, course literature and relevant specimens (ours extend to 5 store boxes for hovers and 5 for general Diptera).

Printing course literature is useful further support - and here we must extend a HUGE thank you to BRC for prining the literature for our more recent Diptera courses (we have a charge for the hoverflies literature to cover replacement printing costs - not something we have called upon from BRC).

What else might be done? Well running a course a long way from home is VERY costly if you self-fund. When we went to Orkney we actually covered a sizeable part of the costs ourselves (DF covered part of it) - it could never have been done otherwise. Likewise when we went to Shetland where the LERC covered the ferry costs. Long-distance courses are expensive so a general fund to cover some of the costs might be helpful. BUT, after our experience in Orkney where we went believing that we had 8 participants, only to find that 3 had dropped out at the last minute, I would say all courses ought to involve an up-front charge to the participants.

Other thoughts include the need to provide capacity to develop teaching collections. Ours have been developed by me at my own expense - they comprise 10 store boxes now and probably 4-5,000 specimens. Just thinking about those costs - store boxes are now about £50 each. Staging pins about £0.5 each and micro-pins £0.2 each. At today's prices, our teaching collection would cost somewhere in the order of  £850-£1000 not including the vast amount of my time compiling and maintaining the collection and of course a lot of my house storing it!

So, maybe NFBR should be thinking a lot more about what actually goes into training people, developing training for trainers and a fund for supporting courses and the assembly of necessary training material. This is a finite resource that, if it ceased, could be accommodated by the schemes - they just stop running courses - which means that the funding bodies see the direct impact of their cuts!