Saturday, 6 February 2016

Open access data – are we missing something?

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.

Wrong: not all data providers are necessarily happy to have their data made publicly available. That is a matter of personal choice, and many permutations exist. LERCs may well have a variety of different levels of commitment to provide data, and may not be free to make it available to all and sundry. In addition, some recorders think that their data is actually worth something and are extremely reluctant to see it released for anything other than strictly nature conservation reasons.

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'.

Producing a species list that can be replicated in an environmental statement is just one stage in the process. There is also a need to interpret lists. This is something that demands particular skills and context. Whilst a consultant might get a staff member to provide some sort of interpretation, this is often a bigger task when tackled without context than when undertaken by somebody who has an intimate knowledge of the area concerned and the taxa involved. The majority of consultancies employ generalists and not specialists; indeed in many areas of biology the numbers of available specialists are very low.

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.

Some empirical evidence from LERCs for the various models would help to resolve this question.

3. Consultancies make a lot of money out of data from LERCs.

I suspect not! Most clients want the job as cheap as possible, but they do want the job to be done properly. Thus, if the consultant knows that the job can be done quicker and cheaper by the LERC than by their staff, they will factor this into their quote to the client. Of course there are consultancies that see the client as a 'cash cow' but when they do they will get found out and develop a reputation that is hard to shake off.

4. It is cheaper to employ LERCs than consultants because consultants pay their staff much more.

This is a popular misconception, especially in the public sector. In reality, consultants rarely have defined benefits pension schemes and often pay the office junior to do the jobs that an LERC might do. True, salaries in consultancies do rise with experience and perhaps reach higher levels than in other employment streams, but as far as I can see there are few real differences during normal economic times. At the moment, salaries in consultancies might be a bit more liberal than in the public sector, but everybody is squeezed.

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.

The real difference between LERC costs and consultancies is that LERCs should be able to add value because they provide a specialist service.

5. Making data available to developers means that it is helping to destroy the countryside.

In theory, this is a wholly wrong misconception, but that depends upon data being used responsibly. Nevertheless, in the course of my career I have come across several cases where data have been withheld and as a consequence the assessment of a site's importance has been less favourable to wildlife.

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.

Wrong. Each dataset is retained as a separate source. Yes there may be poor datasets but unless valid datasets are available it is not possible to minimise the impacts of weak ones. All data analysis depends upon specialist skills to provide a valid interpretation; this is the skill that is vested in quite a small cohort of taxonomic specialists such as recording scheme organisers.

7. Efficiencies can be achieved by centralising data collection and validation.

One part of this approach depends upon an an assumption that LERCs will continue to exist even if NE/Defra funding is withdrawn. That is a brave judgment when one bears in mind that the loss of a key partner often means that other funders feel less of an obligation to participate.

What will happen if LERCs fold? A second assumption then obtains: that without LERCs, recorders will simply use other tools to submit records. This too is a brave conclusion because people often have local allegiances.

8. There is a network of specialists that can be called upon to provide data validation services.

In theory this might be true, but in reality such specialists are not sitting there waiting to be called upon to provide a free service to biological recording. If the call coincides with their objectives they may well participate, but in many cases I suspect this not to be the case. I can think of several major recording scheme organisers that are unlikely to participate, and as such this leaves huge gaps in the validation process.

It is also unwise to assume that existing voluntary validators will continue to be available. In the past ten years, the role of Recording Scheme organiser has changed out of all recognition. In the case of more active schemes it has been necessary to increase the technical capacity and to start to introduce internal administrative processes to keep the scheme running. I have not forgotten the response I got from one of the most able hoverfly recorders when I approached him to become a scheme organiser: 'I enjoy the fieldwork but do not want to become involved in administration'. Wise words I think!

Validating photographic records is one such difference. In some cases, the job of validating has reached almost unmanageable proportions. There is a serious danger that demand for free data administration will reach such a level that specialists whose primary interest is fieldwork will withdraw their services.

Doubtless, there will be others who will offer their services, but will they really have the requisite skills? Some may, but I suspect we can all think of people who display a serious over-estimation of their abilities!

9. Improving data streams is about increasing the numbers of recorders.

This is arguably the biggest misconception of all. Yes one can increase the numbers of records, but sheer volume does not equate to quality. As an example, I can go out and record hoverflies of all taxa and maybe generate 20-30 records from a single site on a good day. Alternatively I could go out and record those taxa across all biodiversity and generate a list of 100 unexceptional easily recognised species. Which is the more useful in terms of site interpretation or site protection?

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.

To my mind, the crucial issue is to grow the numbers of people with sufficient skills and experience to mentor others, assist in validation and provide interpretive skills. This takes time and depends upon a very narrow spectrum of existing specialists to deliver the desired skills and standards. These are the same people that are expected to provide data validation services and of course to continue to provide the detailed taxonomic records that are the foundation of current specialist recording.

10. Greater efficiency can be achieved by funding centralised services, with fewer local centres.

An interesting assumption that forgets some fundamental aspects of biological recording. Firstly, most people still have some sort of affinity to a region or local area. Those who range far and wide tend to go to honeypot sites to add the tick of x or y to their lists (especially true when I was into moths and I dare say it still holds good where it comes to recording moths, orchids or dragonflies).

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.

The lesson I have learned from running training courses is that one is sadly mistaken if one thinks that all the participants are there in order to become recorders of that taxonomic group. They are not. Some want to enjoy their walks in the countryside; some will develop partial skills amongst a range of other interests, and the odd one will become a devotee of the group in question (at least for a year or two). I suspect that the same holds for the range of biological recorders – some are interested in contributing to national schemes; some are interested locally but not nationally, and some have an allegiance to a particular project.

And the moral of the story …..

The emphasis on collection of data at a national scale suggests that biological recording is regarded as simply an unpaid arm of a professional body. It is all too easy to fall into this trap. I would like to think that when I worked for NE I might still have said what I have in this analysis; but maybe not, as perhaps I too would be beguiled by the desire to access data that would allow me to help to conserve England's wonderful wildlife.

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.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Funding and Local Environmental Records Centres

It was made public today that Natural England have decided to terminate service level agreements with Local Environmental Records Centres (LERCs). In their announcement they state:

'We no longer believe that continued investment in a large number of independent organisations managing data locally, and placing considerable constraints upon its use, is the right strategy. Generic tools and standards for data mobilisation, quality control & sharing, and using up-to-date technology, could substitute much of the need for local independent biodiversity data management and does not require the same level of ongoing investment from us. In our view, investment in helping to deliver the new NBN Strategy and associated Action Plan therefore offers a cost-effective approach. We’re looking at where we best target our spending and resources so we get the best possible value for money, and the LERC agreements do not deliver the changes towards more Open Data that Natural England and Defra wish to see.'

Some of this comes as no surprise. Natural England's budget has been substantially reduced, and with it their ability to continue to fund everything that they once did. Also, I am not totally surprsied that emphasis is placed on the issue of data access. Some LERCs are quite protective about data access and as such this runs counter to many of the principles applied to publicly funded data management. I can understand why some LERCS are so protective andI know of individuals who are equally concerned about data being made widely available, so it is not a simple issue. But, there was always the danger that lack of data accessibility would become a significant issue for funding bodies such as NE.

For me, the bigger issue is the degree to which the role of LERCs in promoting biological recording is understood. Last weekend we ran a course on hoverfly identification for 9 people at Brecon LERC. Last June we did the same for the LERC at Kirkwall in Orkney. Next month we are doing the same for the LERC in Sussex – there is a pattern developing …. Yes we do run courses at other centres such as museums, but they too are closing!

Over the years there have been a number of initiatives to improve biological recording skills – the HRS has benefitted from two OPAL grants and one from Natural England that have made it possible to take training to the regions. Some 400+ people later we are still making use of the equipment funded by these grants. But, we cannot operate without local organisers, a venue and somebody to administer the costs of running a course. Even if a course is cost neutral to the host, there still need to be a booking system and a payments system. If it starts to fall to local volunteers to organise venues and courses they probably won't happen – there is a need for insurance, somebody has to finance room hire, and somebody has to take a financial risk that the costs will be covered by sufficient people enrolling. And, we don't swallow the costs - our T&S has to be covered, which for a two day course many miles from home is not cheap; even if we only charge fuel costs, accommodation and basic subsistence. Organisations such as LERCs, Museums and Wildlife Trusts have this capacity. Less so, local societies where a loss on a course could have a big impact on their budget; and it is the brave individual that grasps this nettle.

So, whilst a strategy based on the NBN clearly offers a cost-effective option for a cash-starved Natural England, there are knock-on effects resulting from a contraction away from LERCs. Loss of local venues for training is possibly the least of the worries. If LERCs close, then jobs go too. Often these are early career options for relatively young graduates and provide a stimulus for people to gain skills and to be exposed to a wide variety of recording skills. LERC staff often participate in the data collection process and gain field skills. They also start to get involved in the long-term commitment to recording. Without this opportunity, the numbers of skilled recorders may well diminish. We forget that many Recording Scheme organisers have at some stage had career links with biology and if those links are cut the chances of developing a replacement generation are more remote.

So, whilst I fully understand why NE has taken the decision to cut LERC support, I fear that this might be another nail in the coffin of some aspects of biological recording.

In my own case, I doubt I would have become so interested and committed had it not been that I developed skills in order to get work as a field entomologist. My time with the ISR gave me a depth of knowledge, experience and contacts that I would not otherwise have had. And, I was sufficiently committed to take on a national recording scheme. I have to confess that in part I did so because I thought it might help my career chances (I was on short term contracts at the time and it took a further 3 years before I got a 'permanent' job). In the end, taking on that voluntary role has had very little impact on my real career as entomology jobs in conservation were largely scrapped in 1991 and I had to move on and do something else. But, without that initial impetus would there now be a highly active Recording Scheme, a WILDGuide, a well-respected Facebook group of over 2000 participants and around 60-80 new trainees every year? Probably not! I would have become an estate agent or something of that ilk.

It remains to be seen how NE's decision will affect LERC viability. What must be in little doubt is that any loss of capacity to organise and to motivate biological recording could have profound implications long into the future.

Monday, 1 February 2016

A loss of field skills?

Martin Harvey recently posted or re-posted a link to an article in The Times Higher Education supplement which lamented the loss of field biology skills and suggested they were on the brink of extinction. I found myself disagreeing profoundly with some of the thesis, and in other places wondering whether the issue of loss of professional taxonomists was being confused with a critical failure in field biology?

So, to disentangle the issues I did a bit of thinking and came up with the following.

The issue of loss of taxonomic skills is a subject I have previously discussed in this blog. (25 September 2015). Clearly, there has been a decline in the teaching of comparative anatomy and systematics in the UK. There has also been a huge decline in the numbers of jobs that might use such skills, so in that respect there is potentially an issue. And, with the loss of jobs comes the loss of a proportion of the long-term pool of competent people who participate in biological recording. Many of these people are potential shakers and movers, but not all will engage in a non-vocational capacity.

But, are we confusing the issues of loss of taxonomy in the academic World and that of taxonomic expertise amongst field biologists? I suspect we are. I see absolutely no evidence that there is a decline in interest in biological recording; if anything, the opposite obtains. There have, however, been some fundamental changes in the way people engage as biological recorders. Electronic media provide much more immediate communication. Some, such as the Facebook pages, provide training and assistance that might otherwise have come from membership of societies. Others, such as iSpot and iRecord mean that there is precious little need for contact between field naturalists and the traditional recording scheme organiser - it can all be achieved electronically without either party ever meeting.

On top of this, it is now so much easier to secure good guide books - compare today with the 1970s and one starts to realise just how much more literature is available and just how good some of it is. In this respect, some of the low-hanging fruits have been picked and the result is a vast expansion of capacity to identify more readily recognised animals and plants. The modern field recorder can get so much off the internet. By buying off Amazon, the traditional society ceases to be relevant to their needs. Or so they think! In reality, today's field biologists who don't join societies are living off the investments of their predecessors; which means that there may not be the same facilities in years to come.

What drives an interest in field biology?

If I look at my own discipline, it is unlikely that there would be the interest in hoverflies that currently obtains, had it not been for the British Entomological and Natural History Society. For, it was that society that bid for grant money to make possible the publication of the first edition of Stubbs and Falk. Had that not happened there would have been no second edition, and as likely as not I would never have become a Dipterist. Thus, there would have been no WILDGuide, no UK Hoverflies Facebook group or the innumerable training events that Stuart Ball and I have run. When we are gone, what will be the mechanism to bring a new generation together and to ask 'how can we improve recorder competency and effort?'

I also reflect that it was not the teaching of taxonomy and systematics that enabled me to become a moderately competent Dipterist. A well-embedded knowledge of plant and animal anatomy has certainly been helpful, but I think I would argue that the most important factor has been mentoring by other specialists, a desire to gain skills in order to secure a job, and an innate interest as a scientist to do a bit more than develop a stamp collection of hoverflies, moths or whatever took my fancy. The link to employment was VERY important in my early years but now it is more a matter of enjoying the countryside, visiting interesting places, meeting kindred spirits and tackling intellectually stimulating issues. It must remain as an issue for the next generation, and in that respect the lack of employment in relevant fields is likely to be an important factor in promulgating field skills.

In my case there is a clear cross-over between academia and an innate interest in natural history, but that is not for everybody. Field skills are not confined to taxonomically trained graduates. Indeed, in my experience the wonder of field biology is the way in which people who do not come from a traditional training in botany or zoology rise to be the leaders in their field - from dustmen to surgeons, with many variations along the way.

What, therefore, is the issue?

It seems to me that we must look at taxonomy in a variety of ways. Firstly, field biology is not confined to the world of academia. Indeed, it is odd that the academic world is expressing any concern about field biology. The 'amateur' natural historian was once a second class citizen but today the academic world sees the 'citizen scientist' as a source of data and as a new research theme. This is a far cry from the days when natural historians were seen as people who had no relevance to real science and field biology was dismissed as 'natural history' i.e. not proper science. I don't think we can link the weaknesses in field biology to a lack of taxonomy in the universities.

To me, the biggest issues concern the differences between modern biological recording and that of two or three decades ago. When I first got interested in natural history I was lucky to encounter the 'greats' of the day. Those wonderful people who gave in great generosity - Jean Byatt helped me as a field botanist; Alan Stubbs and Ian McLean encouraged my interest in Diptera; and Ken Evans, and Jim Porter were willing to provide transport and encouragement to me as a young lepidopterist. Those wonderful people are fondly remembered and I still appreciate their support. But, it is also worth reflecting that my interaction with the leaders of the day was because I joined societies and made an effort to get help. It is a two-way process.

These days, the societies that I joined in the 1970s lack younger members. All too often I see posts on the internet where novices argue that they should have access to information on the Web - free of charge and without contact with experienced specialists. Moreover, one sees far too many comments that suggest that because I am prepared to retain specimens my ethics are dubious. I have a horrible feeling that the mantra 'take nothing but photographs and leave nothing but footprints' has the potential to undermine sound taxonomic recording.

Photographic recording is not the problem either, however. To my way of thinking, it is actually essential that we engage with photographic recorders and develop new ways of working to generate records: hence my commitment to the UK Hoverflies Facebook group. The issue is far more complex and is one where we are witnessing a transition from the 19th to the 21st Centuries.

Modern biological recording

There are those who lament a golden age of biological recording - the days when the first county and national atlases were produced. In some ways, those were halcyon days but we must remember that they were also a time of great novelty. Today, we have a pretty robust idea of what occurs where. Our understanding of biogeography has advanced markedly. There is not quite the same reason to go out square-bashing and yet we continue to need this effort. Also, if one looks at the data in recording schemes, the big growth in recording took place between the 1960s and 1980s - at about the time taxonomy started to fall out of favour in academia.

Similarly, we cannot argue that our knowledge base is so low that there are major finds to be made by simple field work. It is much harder to add a 'new to Britain' and the general standard of knowledge is much higher. So, we must accept that today's luminaries will have to have a far more comprehensive skill-base than the previous generations. That means that there will be far fewer individuals capable of making major advances in the knowledge of our biodiversity.

What is more, I am highly sceptical that there ever was a nirvana in which a generation of field biologists was so expert and generated such immensely valuable data. It is certainly the case that past generations knew one another and that there were towering figures in the field. Part of the problem is that when there are towering figures, there is no space for the next generation. Somehow we have to create that space in time to allow new generations to fill the vacancies before they become available. That is something that the greybeards have to think about - how to bow out and allow the next generation to fill the niches before they are completely vacant. I have no solution to this, but as advanced warning it is my intention to pull away from hoverflies before the Grim Reaper implements the final cut. I do not want, or expect, to be doing what I am currently doing in ten years time.

If we are to hand over to a new generation, we must not assume that they will do precisely what we have done. Circumstances will change and we must expect the next generation to adapt to the conditions of the time. I have yet to find the best way of bowing out, but I do have my eyes open for successors. My real desire is to make sure that my successors are in place well before I have to finally bow out, and to establish a set of principles that succession management is a central part of biological recording. None of us are irreplaceable and if we really want our passion to survive we must learn to let go in time. The big challenge is how to do this? The big issue for all of us is to look at ways in which we can mentor the next generation and establish a network that is capable of taking over from us.