Safety in numbers - Cutting costs and conserving species by sharing data


Knowing exactly where rivers are and which stretches of them are being improved or protected is just as important as knowing whether they are home to kingfishers, brown trout or water voles if we want our conservation efforts to be successful. 


But hundreds of official bodies and voluntary organisations have a hand in collecting the different bits of basic information that river conservationists need, which makes producing plans, or guidance, or even a database and toolkits for field workers to use a nightmare of permissions, restricted access to data and commercial sensitivities. 


Once you move away from rivers and out into the seas the sheer cost and difficulty of collecting the data makes decision-making for conservation work much less evidence based, and prevents joined-up decisions by different government departments and their industry and voluntary partners. 


It’s not just about the numbers of cod or mackerel, grey seals or cold water coral reefs, it’s bringing together all the supporting information to make sure that any conservation strategy is realistic.  Where are the shipping lanes, tidal flows, the sand and gravel extraction sites and the undersea telephone cables?  All too often, decisions are based just on the information that is readily available, even if it is incomplete.


Our business leaders and political decision makers all want to grow our economy by increasing the availability and reusability of public sector information and helping the commercial sector to generate more money from using it.


Improving access to information and data is a major strand of JNCC’s work with a particular focus on biodiversity data:


  • Over the last ten years JNCC has helped to establish the National Biodiversity Network –mobilising the huge volume of records of species collected across the UK every year.  The website now contains almost 50 million observations (
  • JNCC is also involved within the Marine Environmental Data and Information Network (MEDIN) - ensuring that data collected by all sectors in the marine environment are stored and published in a way that allows their reuse, cutting costs and improving decisions.
  • Within both these initiatives JNCC has helped set the direction for action and provided technical advice and development.


Despite the success of mobilising these data (many of which have been gathered by the voluntary sector) there remain real barriers to actively applying the data to conservation.


Firstly the accessibility of the biodiversity data is limited.  Of the 50 million records in the National Biodiversity Network only 10 million can be publicly downloaded at reasonably accurate resolution.  Much of the data with restricted access has been collected by voluntary recorders with no obligation to provide access to it. The real power of the data comes from combining it with other non-biodiversity related sources, for example the locations of rivers or areas targeted for habitat creation. Very often onward transmission and useof data is restricted, even though many of the sources had some public funding.


The reasons for the restrictions vary and depend on the type of organisation that owns the data. The voluntary sector often thinks that if data are being used commercially there should be some payment back to the data owner or is simply concerned about their data being misused or misrepresented. A number of professional bodies and parts of the public sector such as the Ordnance Survey rely on income to maintain their data sources.


JNCC believes that the public sector should give a strong lead by providing more open access to data. Firstly it would permit wider use of data in conservation decisions making them better informed.  Secondly, such a move by the public sector may encourage other sectors to follow suit.  The real advantages of giving the voluntary sector much more open access to mapping data will be by improving the quality or accuracy of the records they collect and also by improving the way they use their own data.


Over the coming months JNCC will be engaging in two reviews of current policy. The first consultation on ‘Policy option for geographic information from Ordnance Survey’ is reviewing options around the future of the Ordnance Survey.  A second review being led through the Marine Environmental Data and Information Network is considering the issues around the reuse of data within the marine environment.


Case Study

The rivers Biodiversity Action Plan working group wanted to identify priority rivers in the UK ( by combining physical information about each river with details of existing statutory protection and river wildlife. This was with a view to targeting future conservation efforts.


While much of the data required already existed in some form, actually getting hold of it was relatively challenging often involving additional costs or having to develop or agree licensing arrangements. This was particularly true for the physical data relating to the locations of rivers themselves. Restrictions around this meant that even once the data were consolidated into a toolkit these licensing arrangements meant the toolkit could not be shared with a wider audience.


Key facts

Expansion in range of the Hoverfly Rhingia rostrata (Linnaeus, 1758)

Historically, Rhingia rostrata was a rarity, found mainly in the Weald and South Wales, but it has increased in both range and frequency over the last decade. It is now quite common in the Welsh borders and has colonised the East Midlands since 2003. The Hoverfly Recording Scheme has records from 24 10km squares for 1980 – 1995, compared with 113 from 1996 to present. We do not know why it has expanded, but models show a correlation with warming of the climate.


Atlases and Impacts

New uses are being found for the vast treasure trove of species knowledge collected as part of atlas recording projects.  Atlases have always been vital for conservationists to know where things are, but now the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, in partnership with JNCC, is exploring new analytical techniques, allowing species records to tell us more about the environment and how it is changing.  For example, expansion in the range of the hoverfly Rhingia rostrata.


As part of this work, the Biological Records Centre recently hosted a workshop on 'Measuring changes in species’ distribution'. Seventy scientists and recorders from across the UK and Europe took part in what proved to be an exciting opportunity to make new links and share knowledge between field workers and research. Current analyses are giving us insights of how our countryside is being impacted by air pollution, climate change and other pressures.