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Citizen science: Biological Records Centre

Volunteer contributions have had a beneficial impact on monitoring and recording wildlife species in the UK. Watch Tom August explain more.
My name is Tom August. And I work at the Biological Records Centre in Wallingford, Oxfordshire. The Biological Records Centre is a national focus for wildlife recording in the UK of terrestrial and fresh water wildlife. So we work with volunteers throughout the UK who collect data about wildlife. So people used to record on forms, paper forms which they’d fill in through the year, and then mail back to us. And then transcribed into big data sets. But nowadays people tend to go more online and using smartphone apps. So the data that comes in is what, where, when. So what did you see? When did you see it? And where did you see it? That’s the core of a biological record.
Nowadays, we try to centralise this all into one database, the Indicia database. So this stores everything in a common format and in a common location, which is much easier to put out the data that you need in a standardised format. So we get lots of data, for free, from volunteers. But that does come at some cost too. So there are biases in the data. First is spatial bias. So people tend to record in the south of England, because more people live there and typically, we have more wildlife in the South UK. Temporal bias, so we’ve got more and more records coming in over time. So we need to account for that. And thirdly, recorder effort bias.
So I might go out to a field site and survey. And I might just record all the interesting birds I see. So I’m not recording every bird I see, just the interesting ones. So there’s different amounts of recording, as well. So we try to account for these three biases in our models to then get really nice objective, noise free trends of these species. These models allow us to account for the bias in the data. But one of the costs that come with these models is they take a long time to run. So one model for one species might take two weeks to run on a computer.
So if we stack up 100 species back to back for two weeks, that’s clearly far too long. So we use the JASMIN computing facilities, which allow us to use over 1,000 cores at once to run, effectively in parallel, about 1,000 species at a time, which these large analyses now feasible. A lot of the analyses we do need big volumes of data. If we want to try to find out the trends across all butterflies, we need a lot of data across the entire UK at a high resolution. But a single record of a species arriving on our shores can be really, really valuable because it tells us that species has arrived. And if it’s invasive, it allows us to take action.
And that one record is the difference between us taking action and hopefully preventing that invasive spreading or not taking action and it spreading to the rest of the UK where it might have negative effects on our wildlife and industries. So from doing these large analyses, we’ve learned a lot about the wildlife in the UK. For example, we know that the priority species, a species we think are rare or under threat, they’ve declined historically. So from 1970 when our analyses first start through to present day, we’ve seen a sort of steady decline of priority species. So that’s really important to know, because it means we need to take conservation action for these species.
So I think my favourite fact about wildlife recording in the UK is that if you put a monetary value on the volunteer time that people committed to recording wildlife, it comes out at around about 20 million pounds a year. So people are donating time in kind to the value of 20 million pounds every year just to record wildlife. And from all that volunteer collected data, we can do these amazing analyses to work out how wildlife is changing. And we can form government and conservation priorities. But none of that would have be possible without all these people giving up their time to record wildlife.
Watch Dr Tom August, Computational Ecologist at the Biological Records Centre (BRC), highlight the value of volunteer contributions for monitoring and recording wildlife species in the UK.
Tom introduces several apps which members of the public use to record sightings (what, where and when) of different insects, which allows the BRC to monitor species diversity and trends. This is an example of the importance of both big and small data, as both the collective contribution from all volunteers and individual recordings have made valuable contributions to wildlife analysis and subsequently informed the work of conservation charities and government policies.
You can find out more about the work of the Biological Records Centre on their website, including a list of apps you can download to contribute to the project here.
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