On balance, I am inclined towards improving access to data but I have a feeling that Natural England's recent announcement on service level agreements with LRECs has opened Pandora's Box. There are widely differing views about the degree to which access to data should be free to all and I suspect that many of the views expressed are based upon misconceptions and wrong assumptions. So, let us try to disentangle some of this:
1. There is no reason why data held by LERCs should not be fully open access.
Nevertheless, it also seems to be the case that some LERCs are unwilling to make their data available via the NBN Gateway. That could be interpreted as an 'own goal' in the light of the NE announcement.
2. Withholding data means that it has a commercial 'worth'.
LERCs are to my mind far more likely to have links with relevant local specialists and are probably far better placed to provide this capacity. As such, it is likely that it will be more cost-effective to use the LERC to provide interpretation than do it oneself. Although I do not have corroborating evidence, I am told that LERCs that have made their data freely available have actually found that they get more trade because there is a better knowledge of the data that they hold.
3. Consultancies make a lot of money out of data from LERCs.
4. It is cheaper to employ LERCs than consultants because consultants pay their staff much more.
It is also worth bearing in mind that if there is an economic contraction then consultancies are far more likely to shed staff quickly (and sometimes on very poor terms when the finances hit the rocks). I seem to recall huge job losses in several of the major consultancies as the recession hit in 2008/09 (I heard of 25% losses in some of the biggest) and am aware of several smaller ones that have gone out of business in recent years.
5. Making data available to developers means that it is helping to destroy the countryside.
I wonder how often sites have been lost because data were lacking?
In today's climate, the general assumption greatly favours the developer and wildlife issues are unlikely to carry much weight in planning decisions; but, if the information is not available there can be no fight for wildlife at all.
6. Adding data to the NBN means that my carefully validated data is corrupted by dodgy data.
7. Efficiencies can be achieved by centralising data collection and validation.
8. There is a network of specialists that can be called upon to provide data validation services.
9. Improving data streams is about increasing the numbers of recorders.
What is more, increasing the numbers of records requiring administration simply places more pressure on the existing technical capacity. I guess this could be considered as an 'efficiency gain', but it may not feel that way to the volunteers concerned.
10. Greater efficiency can be achieved by funding centralised services, with fewer local centres.
LERCs are most suited to engaging with people whose focus is their County or a particular local reserve. Such people may think about submitting records locally because there is relevant feedback or there are events that appeal to them; they may not bother if it is just a matter of submitting to some big national repository that is a cost-efficient data collection service.
To my mind, the issue is not about robotic data collection, it is about a human interaction that gives recorders a warm feeling and a sense of being valued. As I have mentioned in previous posts, LERCs also provide an important training interface and their loss will remove one of the critical support mechanisms required to build a bigger and more resilient recorder base.
And the moral of the story …..
Perhaps it is time to make allowances? But, there remains the need to ask 'when did anybody really inquire what motivates people to collect and submit records?' And, who thought to determine 'what is it that we can do for the community of biological recorders?' LERCs continue to be needed because they provide the mechanisms for local communication that cannot be achieved by a highly automated national scale data assembly processes. Without some of the LERCs I know that we would not have been able to deliver the training programme that we have committed to over the past seven or eight years; in which case we would not have the growing network of recorders who are motivated to get involved locally.
However, the real test of the local value of LERCs must depend upon the views of those who contribute to them. Would they record anyway? Would they simply submit data in a different way? and would they notice the difference? I doubt the LERCs themselves can actually speak for the recorders, and unless there is a substantial body of opinion from contributors, the concerns of LERC employees will largely be ignored as special pleading.
The critical issue for biological recording is to find a way of developing an enhanced network of motivators and organisers who engage locally. In that way, data volume will improve, as will quality. Perhaps in a such conditions there is the chance that a new generation of specialists will develop to fill the shoes of the existing generation.