Sunday, 10 December 2017

In praise of the Local Environmental Records Centres

Yesterday's post elicited quite an interesting thread concerning LERCS and their role in biological recording. It reminds me of the debate than ensued after Natural England cut its funding for LERCS in favour of more centralised data management. I felt at the time that, whilst NE had some good points about the need for LERCS to put data onto the NBN, they had completely missed the point about what LERCS are about and the role they play in assembling data. I fear that this extends further because the NBN is the user interface for most biological recording and is at arms length from the actual contributors of data.

Those who read my posts will have realised a long while ago that my approach is more about data contributors than data users and yesterday's responses convince me more than ever that the focus is too heavily on how data can be accessed and used. That is understandable in many ways - the NBN would not have been funded had there not been a demand for data. BUT, once the infrastructure is in place it is necessary to think about how it is populated and supplied.

The NBN is, undoubtedly, an asset to all users including the recording community so let us not think that there are specific sectoral interests at work. We all need and use it. Those who use the NBN but not the LERCS do not see what goes into the regional element of biological recording. If you are a keen naturalist and not inclined towards a specific recording scheme where is your natural community? You can of course sit on your own and upload your data onto iRecord. I suspect that is not terribly rewarding because you may wait months or years to see your data verified, and perhaps even longer before it is put to good use. Also, do you interact with a human being, let alone somebody with whom you can share your passion? Simple answer NO - it is a machine and you are simply one of the suppliers of material with which to make sausages!

Getting involved with a LERC is a different matter - they are the focus for a community, provide a centre for all sorts of activities and help to create the social interaction that the majority of human beings need. We are a naturally social animal that is increasingly living in isolation, so LERCS are an important social asset. That is BEFORE they start to assemble data, run programmes and interact with planning authorities and developers.

Without the LERCS I wonder if there would be anything like the data that currently exist - probably not! I was reminded that there is a whole generation of recorders who are getting a bit old but still have extensive notebooks that need transcribing - so where a LERC facilitates this, there is a long-term and extensive social gain. Those that run courses provide another valuable conduit for recording schemes to grow skills across the country - the HRS has done this in many places and is heavily reliant upon the LERCS for this facilitation.

We should also stop and think - if there were no LERCS, would we, the Recording Scheme oragnisers, be bombarded by consultants wanting information? I guess there is a risk and jolly well hope that never happens. I for one have no desire to add that job to the role of scheme organiser! So, for me, the LERCS are an essential part of the infrastructure.

My big worry is not the LERCS but who they use to verify data. There seem to be sizeable Diptera datasets - but who is supplying the data - there are relatively few active Dipterists in Dipterists Forum and although I do know of a few who are not members, it begs the question that if you are an active Dipterist and don't engage with DF are you really making the best use of the communal skill to verify your own work? We all need an element of peer-review and learn a great deal from each other. Or, are the data being verified? Clearly some is not, and quality control is quite patchy. I'm not volunteering to do more - there is enough for me to do already!

But that brings us back to the perennial question - there is a lot of focus on the users of data and organisers of data but precious little appreciation of where the data come from and what makes recorders tick. The NBN is simply a vehicle for disseminating data, whilst LERCS are there in part to motivate the boots on the ground (as are Recording Schemes).

3 comments:

  1. I think that the problem that most LERCs have is that they were set up to do a vital job of providing good quality data for use in planning. Unfortunately, the business models that they run under are varied and their terms of reference are sometimes decided by one strong individual at the top. Over the years since they were set up, the funding for them has largely depleted, leaving some struggling to survive let alone develop and grow. Attitudes within government towards the planning process have also played a part in making life difficult. Looking at our local LERC, they are rigorous about their data and are making strides to move with the modern trends of data capture such as i-Record. The group I mainly work with now, RoAM (the Recorders of the Avalon Marshes)are sitting on a lot of data which will be put into the LERC version of i-Record when it is finally up and running how we need it to be. The delays in getting it to that stage have often been down to scratching around for funding to pay for someone's time to sort out the problems. At present, we are setting up our own verifiers for various taxa so that before the records are set loose on the NBN, they have been cleared via our local processes and are as clean as can be. I'm sure there will still be problems around how that data is accepted or not by National Recording Schemes but from a data collector's perspective, I see that as a job for someone else to sort out. I can't be alone in sitting on data that I am reluctant to send to more than one upstream collector because of fears of data duplication, it would be comforting to know that the great and the good out there were working on practical solutions that would help us feel more comfortable in that regard.

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    1. I would not worry about duplication of data Bill - there are computational ways of dealing with that. Just send hoverfly data direct to the scheme - it will get used wisely!

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