Data flow - The journey of a record

Data flow diagram

Data flow diagramData flow can be a controversial and confusing topic within the biological recording sector. So where should you, as a biological recorder, submit your record? Keiron Brown discusses his thoughts on what to consider when deciding who to submit your species records to.

By sharing biological records it opens up the potential benefit that a record can have to nature and the environment through analysis, research and the production of resources such as distribution atlases. Throughout the years, the number of organisations involved in the collection and dissemination of biodiversity data has increased and diversified leaving biological recorders in a state of confusion as to who they should be sending their data too.

The 'Endgame'

The best place to start with data flow is the end of the story, mainly because this is where the record's use really comes into its own. The National Biodiversity Network Atlas is the UK's depository for biological records. It houses many different data sets from many different organisations. These data sets may vary a lot so they are accompanied by metadata (this is a description of the data set created by the data provider). One of the components of the metadata explains what it can be used for (e.g. anything, non-commercial use or only by permission of the provider). Therefore, the NBN Atlas should be a one stop shop for all biological records and this is where we should aim to for our records to end up so they can be put to good use by scientists and conservationists.

So we just need to submit our records to the NBN Atlas? Unfortunately, it's not that simple. Biological records are much more useful if they are validated and verified by appropriate experts and this is where things get a little more complicated. Below are three explanations of possible routes to the NBN Atlas. Please note that things differ regionally and between species groups so always contact the relevant organisations if you want to clarify what the best option is for any given record. Furthermore, records created for a specific survey should always be sent to the survey organiser (for example, records for surveys conducted as part of The Wider Countryside Butterfly Survey should always be sent to the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme).

Remember that you are the one creating the record so it is up to you where you send it to and you should base this on what you want your record to be used for. There is no right or wrong option and you may chose to send your records to multiple organisations to ensure it reaches all the relevant organisations (though this may well lead to duplication on the NBN Atlas).

The species record perspective: national surveys and national recording schemes

If you would like the record to be used for distribution atlas production or species population trend monitoring, you should submit your record to the National Recording Scheme or Society (NRSS) for that species group. The NRSS may be able to use your record to help improve current knowledge about habitat preferences or behaviour, and will recognise when significant species records are made for their group. They are also best placed to determine the accuracy of a record by submitting it to their species group specific verification protocols. In essence, they are best placed to interpret your record in relation to the species group it belongs to.

NRS data flow

You may need to contact the NRSS to determine the best method to do this as different surveys/schemes have different methods and preferences. Some will have a regional contact, a county recorder, that is responsible for collating the records in the local area and they will send your record on to the NRSS alongside other species records for their area.

Many NRSSs will forward their data on to the NBN Atlas (depending on the NRSS's opinion of how their records should be used). From there it can be downloaded by Local Environmental Record Centres (LERCs), though there is no guarantee that this will happen. Some NRSSs do pass on their records to LERCs but, as many NRSSs are volunteer-run, they do not always have the capacity to do so.

Pro: Species experts able to use data to better understand the ecology, distribution and conservation status of their species groups.

Cons: No guarantee that data will make it to LERCs to be used by managers of local habitats and local significance of species records may be overlooked.

The local record perspective: LERCs and local groups

If you would like the record to be considered when decisions are made regarding the area the record was made in, you should submit your record to the LERC for the area the record originates from. The local knowledge of LERCs mean that they are best placed to interpret the significance of your record locally (the importance of species assemblages may not be picked up by NRSSs), though this may not be picked up for lesser known species groups due to a lack of species-specific knowledge. They are also pivotal in disseminating local records to decision makers such as local wildlife site managers, planners and government agencies.

LERC data flow

As with the species perspective, there may be a county recorder allocated for the species group that they would pass your records on to or even redirect you to.

Many LERCs will forward their data on to the NBN Atlas. From there it can be downloaded by NRSSs, though this is unlikely to occur for most NRSSs due to the voluntary nature of most recording scheme organisers. Some LERCs do pass on their records to NRSSs (mainly through county recorders) but LERCs continue to be reduced in capacity by funding cuts and some may charge for all data searches/dissemination they conduct.

Pros: LERC able to put species records in local context and provide assistance to decision makers for local sites.

Cons: Records for lesser known groups may be overlooked and no guarantee that data will go to NRSS where it can be interpreted alongside other records for the species.

The multi-taxa recorder perspective: iRecord

The two routes above consider the use of the record and there are valid arguments for both routes. So why not send all of your records to both the relevant NRSS and the LERC? Well, ideally that's the best option but it's not always pragmatic for a biological recorder to be able to do this due to the amount of administration that would entail. In fact, even just sending your records to several different LERCs or NRSSs can be an administrative burden.

iRecord data flow

One solution to this is iRecord. This is an online biological record submission platform created by the Biological Records Centre and the NBN to simplify things for the recorder. The idea is that you can use one system to input all of your records and the relevant NRSS and LERC can access that. Furthermore, iRecord allows survey and scheme organisers to create their own forms so iRecord can allow for the vast differences between what different surveys will ask you to record, though all records will still require the who, what, where, when.

iRecord relies on a registered verifier to verify species records to ensure that only reliable records area accepted. These may be county recorders or scheme/survey organisers, but are usually a representative of the relevant NRSS. LERCs are able to download both verified and unverified data. The verifier can set up filters so that records are automatically accepted for certain easy-to-identify species (e.g. hedgehog).

Pros: Provides the recorder with an online database of their records and reduces administrative workload of recorder (and often the verifier too). Allows NRSs to receive records from multi-taxa recorders that may not otherwise engage with the NRS.

Cons: Not all species groups have an active verifier assigned and those records remain unverified. No guarantee that LERC will download local records.

Conclusion

There is no doubt that data flow is a complicated topic and it's no surprise that biological recorders are often left confused about where they should send their record. There is no right or wrong place to send your data as all submission pathways have their pros and cons. The best way to decide is to think about what you want your record to be used for and contact the relevant organisations to see what they recommend. You may find that some organisations have developed a data flow pathway that ensures that your record will go to everyone who can put it to good use. Regardless of where you send it, the most important thing is that you engaged with nature by making a record in the first place.

For the FSC BioLinks project, we use iRecord to collate all of our data. From there some NRSs and LERCs access the data and those that don't are sent our data at the end of each calendar year. In addition, site managers for all the sites we udnertake surveys at are also sent a copy of the data.

Keiron Brown
Recording Officer for the Earthworm Society of Britain and FSC BioLinks Project Manager