Sunday, 5 April 2015

Biological recording - an issue of administration

In recent years there have been several initiatives to improve levels of biological recording. The most prominent was the establishment of the NBN Gateway as well as that of iSpot and the OPAL project that gave grant-aid to improve skills and data flow. In the case of the Hoverfly Recording Scheme, we were greatly helped by grants to buy a projection microscope and 13 teaching microscopes, and to produce teaching literature. We also benefited from a grant from Natural England to buy a computer and projector. In the case of the HRS this grant-aid has been put to good use and we have run well in excess of 50 courses and engaged with over 400 prospective recorders. It has been achieved through the activity of two recording scheme organisers but has depended upon a network of local organisers.

The results are difficult to correlate with increased recorder effort, but in four areas there have been very tangible benefits: Devon, Glasgow, Norfolk and Northamptonshire. In these places there has been a definite upsurge in effort. Why should this be? The answer is simple: in addition to our provision of teaching, there were local people whose interests have meant that they have become leaders - the very necessary glue that holds a group together and makes things happen.

Over the same time, there have been a number of further innovations. Social networking media have become more universally accepted, even by an older generation, and on-line data entry has become more practical. Some recording schemes and organisations have their own systems (e.g. Bird Track) but there is also iRecord. These relatively simple systems (not necessarily in programming technology) encourage data submission by some people. Indeed, Bird Track has even persuaded me to monitor my local ponds and to regularly enter data on their inhabitants.

Superficially at least, biological recording is making considerable headway. Basic metrics concerning the numbers of records submitted or numbers of contributors are powerful political allies that show how biological recording is an active expression of 'the Big Society' at work. In terms of the HRS, the biggest metrics are headline figures about a significant rise in the numbers of records submitted in 2014 - the highest ever and about 30% more than the long-term average.

Beneath the headline figures, there are issues that are very often overlooked and might fall into the 'I do not recognise' bracket if placed before politicians and some senior management. After all, increasing biological recording is simply a question of getting more people out and about, and getting the Recording Schemes to engage with them to verify records. Is that so? In reality, I hear from recorders who complain about lack of verification of their records on iRecord, who find the Record Cleaner responses frustrating and who are amazed to find that their records have not passed between the Local Records Centre and the NBN (at this point I should say that the HRS and DF are working to place updates of data on the NBN).

These various gripes draw attention to the big issue in biological recording that has yet to be recognised or addressed. Records do not simply magic their way from a recorder to the NBN, Recording Scheme or Local Records Centre. There is a very necessary administrative structure; some paid, some voluntary. The professional element can be quantified - staffing costs, staff time, office costs etc. The voluntary organisational component is less obvious but is equally important. It too draws on staff time but because it is voluntary the costs and implications of increasing effort are not obvious. Cutting the professional component will not necessarily mean that the voluntary component will either take over or carry on as normal.

One of the biggest issues I have always felt was: if there is to be a push for more biological recording, where is the taxonomic expertise coming from? Who is going to do the local motivation and organisation? And, why are they going to do it? True, some will get involved because they see biological recording as an essential part of cataloging and conserving wildlife. But, this begs an important question: if you are interested in a particular specialist group of organisms, is your interest in the organisms or in the organisation needed to record them?

These questions highlight a developing issue. Although one can fairly rapidly lay out the base of a pyramid, it takes years to develop the superstructure. True, modern data management systems may help to resolve simple issues and some technical issues such as incorrect grid references, but there is still a need for a human being to take decisions and to provide technical input. Web-based systems such as iRecord and Bird Track need a direct human interface to verify the data and to provide some interpretation. Bird Track is a BTO initiative - the BTO benefits from a professional superstructure, part funded by membership, partly by consultancy services and partly by statutory agency/government funding. iRecord is linked to the Biological Records Centre at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology. Again, funded and staffed with a professional community.

In the case of iRecord, I understand that verification of data is largely undertaken by volunteers - Recording Scheme organisers or local specialists. This verification process is largely dependent upon whether a scheme organiser is willing to undertake the task. Some have signed up to the role; others have not. Feedback from some users expresses frustration that their records have not been verified: in other words there is a willingness to submit records but there is a lack of capacity to verify the records. I certainly know of Recording Scheme organisers who would be very unwilling to verify records based on photos, or from people who are unknown quantities.

Verification is a complex process and is dependent upon trust - big blocks of data from established and reliable recorders are relatively easy to deal with. Small blocks of data from unknown quantities and from relative novices are more intimidating. The role of a Recording Scheme organiser is varied: data verification is part of the job, but then so is motivating recorders, answering queries, checking specimens and, perhaps most importantly providing feedback. Schemes that act as a black hole are rarely very dynamic and don't attract interest from any but the most committed.

Recording Scheme organisers are therefore an essential public interface. In many cases they were recruited (or set up schemes) before crowd-sourced data and 24-hour contact. In essence they were interested in the organisms concerned and focussed their energy on gathering data that improved knowledge about the animals or plants concerned. Some will have been working towards the production of an atlas or revisions of keys. Few would have anticipated the modern role of teacher, motivator, data handler and media manager. Some have adapted, whilst others have not. Most importantly, the question arises: who is going to replace the current cohort?

This is arguably the next big question to be resolved. It is all very well growing the numbers of records, but there is a danger that in developing a huge biological recording effort, the strains placed on the organisation superstructure will be such that nobody will be available to carry through a smooth transition from one generation to the next. Growing a new generation of 'administrators' is therefore essential.

This morning, it struck me that the HRS had grown substantially in terms of administrators - it is no longer just me and Stuart Ball. The UK Hoverflies Facebook page could not function without three additional technically competent members who regularly engage to help with identifications. Also, the site was set up by another member who is far more competent than me in these things. Two people are now administrators of the site together with three of the four technical specialists. All of a sudden, the vast rise in hoverfly recording activity is put into perspective - running the scheme is not down to Stuart and me, but involves the combined contributions of seven people. Likewise, the increased activity in Devon, Glasgow, Norfolk and Northamptonshire reflects the presence of local leadership structures.

Leadership at all levels is surely the issue that has to be resolved if biological recording is to fulfill the aspirations of conservation agencies, NGOs and Government? Some bigger societies have possibly got this in place already. BSBI arguably has a network of local recorders that cannot be matched by many other taxonomic groupings apart from birds and mammals. There was an initiative to improve moth recording, but I believe that funding for this has either diminished or ceased. Dragonfly recording is doubtless much better structured than recording of other taxa. In reality, recording of many more challenging taxa will always be dependent on a small number of people both in administration and in field work.

Growing these elements is therefore a matter not only of growing grass roots interest, it must be accompanied by growing the administrative superstructure that is essential if recorders are to feel valued and that somebody is taking an interest in their contributions. Without this input, there is a real danger that grass roots expectations will be frustrated and there will be finite limits to what can be done. A rise in the numbers of records and in recorder numbers should therefore be seen as a positive first step but the job is not over - it has just begun. The next step is to develop the a wider network of shakers and movers: that is a much slower process.