How data can save the planet

With the current concerns around climate change and reducing plastic waste, “data”, being an integral part of saving the planet is often overlooked or not mentioned.  But, without facts and figures, how can we be sure that the decisions we make are good, or bad, for the environment?

We’ll come on to talk about how data can save the planet, but first we need to understand where these vital data come from, how they are shared, how they are being used and what opportunities there are for the future.

The National Biodiversity Network (NBN)

Wildlife data are the mainstay of the National Biodiversity Network (NBN) – The Network includes all major UK conservation charities, Local Environmental Records Centres, government agencies, local and national recording societies, museums and research institutions. The NBN Trust, a charitable organisation which launched in 2000, supports and facilitates the work of the NBN and in turn the collection, curation, sharing and use of UK wildlife data.  

The NBN Trust also works with its partners to produce standards and procedures for wildlife data, so that they can be made available in a consistent format and used by multiple people in many different ways – the collect once, use many times philosophy is at the core of the NBN.  The main platform for sharing and accessing the data is the NBN Atlas: which holds more than 223 million species occurrence records!

The data goes back a long way

The data on the NBN Atlas, perhaps surprisingly, dates back many hundreds of years as well as right up to present day…

Peregrine Falcon off Norfolk Coast 1605

Polecat near Skipton 1620

Wildcat north of Coldstream Scotland, 1620

Records on the NBN Atlas can also show where there are gaps in our data or our recording efforts and therefore gaps in our knowledge.  Although, just because there is a gap in the data on the map it doesn’t necessarily mean that a species doesn’t exist there, it could simply be that we don’t have the data.  This also helps to demonstrate the importance of the data being available.

Where do we get the data from?

There is a rich history of biological, or wildlife, recording in the UK, dating back hundreds of years, as the examples above show.  Everyone has heard of Charles Darwin and his associations with nature and evolution, but outside of the realms of wildlife recording it’s probably fair to say that few people have heard of Gilbert White.  Gilbert White is generally accepted as the father of biological recording and pre-dates Darwin by almost 100 years. Even before that, John Ray is believed to be the earliest parson naturalist and he was 100 years ahead of Gilbert White.  These men paved the way for the study and recording of wildlife and even today, the majority of wildlife data in the UK are still collected by volunteers.

What makes a record and how can a record be made?

To be of value, any record has to consist of at least the four Ws:

  • Who (made the record / saw the species)
  • What (was the species)
  • Where (was it seen)
  • When (was it seen)

This all sounds fairly straightforward, but when there are hundreds of different wildlife groups, many of whom focus on a single species or geographical region and often have different ways of collecting data, it can make it very complex for enabling easy, onward use.  As there are so many routes for submitting data there are undoubtably records that never see the light of day. After they have been recorded, some are only shared within a particular organisation or group, but others may be shared multiple times, causing unnecessary duplication.  Sadly, we are probably unlikely to ever get to a stage where all wildlife data recorded are accessible for use.

However, the increased use of technology is starting to help.  This is improving the standardisation of data collection, especially through online recording both in the UK (iSpot, iRecord) and globally (iNaturalist).  Social media is also having a big impact. Facebook groups and Twitter encourage people to upload their photos making it easier for people to get involved in wildlife recording at all levels of experience and expertise.

The increasing collection of data is great news, but verification of species is of huge importance for wildlife data and it is at this stage where data flow often slows down or stops completely.  For some species, verification cannot be confirmed without dissection of a specimen, which gives an idea of the level of specialism needed to ensure accuracy.

This is an area where technology could really help speed up verification for easily identified species – automated verification and machine learning would allow verifiers to devote more time to identifying the more difficult species.  Hopefully this is not too far in the future.

Data standards

Darwin Core is an internationally recognised data standard for publishing and integrating biodiversity information and is how the data is held on the NBN Atlas. It includes a glossary of terms (properties, elements, fields or concepts) to provide common naming conventions and data structure.

Sharing data globally

The NBN Atlas holds data at a national scale, but there is also a global biodiversity data aggregator, GBIF – the Global Biodiversity Information Facility – which contains over 1.3 billion species occurrence records.

GBIF ( is an open-data research infrastructure funded by the world’s governments & aimed at providing anyone, anywhere access to data about all types of life on earth

This heat map shows where biodiversity data has been collected and shared with GBIF around the world since the early 1600s. The UK is at the forefront of this.

New sources of data

There are further opportunities for the variety of data being collected and made available to increase.  No longer is biodiversity data just from human observation and submission of the record by dedicated volunteers, new technology is really helping in this area too. For example, 

  • Remote sensing such as LIDAR (light detection and ranging), 
  • Earth Observation Satellites can detect things like changes in vegetation, sea state, extent of ice field. 
  • Drones and camera traps are good for detecting the presence of species and their behaviour. 

All of which means the gathering of more data.

What do these data tell us

One of the most high-profile reports to have used data from the NBN, and other sources, is the State of Nature report published in 2016 and soon to be updated in 2019.  Thanks to the data available, this report highlighted that biodiversity in the UK is declining.

As the volunteers are out looking for wildlife across the year, it has been possible to detect changes in the timing of events.  For example, frogs are spawning earlier, plants are coming into leaf or flowering earlier and birds are laying their eggs earlier in the year. Another observed impact of climate change on biodiversity is the shift of species’ ranges north. 

Data from GBIF has also been used in papers about:

  • Climate change and its effects on pest species
  • Showing that protected areas have a positive effect on biodiversity
  • Prioritising conservation efforts
  • Looking at effects of human land use on biodiversity

Open Data

There is a push for all data to be made open and available to anyone, for any purpose. However, in the UK, most data collection work is carried out by volunteers. Over 7.5 million volunteer hours, every year, go into monitoring the UK’s nature, with nearly 10,000 species being monitored. Imagine the cost if this all had to be funded. 

Additionally, the essential tasks of collation, curation and verification are usually done by a not for profit organisation, meaning that a lot of this work is often unfunded.  In order to continue to support volunteers and curate the data, many organisations rely on providing data services to give them an income. If the data were made fully open, this would impact on the level of support these organisations could give volunteers and on the resources needed to carry out data management.

 Saving our biodiversity and saving our planet

“We have to recognise that every breath of air we take, every mouthful of food we take, comes from the natural world. We are one coherent system, it’s not a question of beauty or interest or wonder, an essential part of human life is a healthy planet.”

Sir David Attenborough

It’s not just all about trends and distribution or the UK, everybody has some impact on global biodiversity.

Human impact on biodiversity

  • Of 6,000 plant species cultivated for food, only nine account for 2/3rds of the total crop production
  • Livestock production is based on 40 species, but only a handful provide the vast majority of meat, milk and eggs we consume
  • The biggest factor is cattle farming, but the impact of oil seed crops like palm and soy is growing fast

Biodiversity’s impact on humans

There are an increasing number of studies that show how access to green spaces and nature has a significant positive effect on our well-being and mental health. One individual map created from the NBN Atlas shows the plentiful greenspaces around a small part of London and even these little patches of green can increase someone’s feeling of connection with the natural world.

There are obviously small actions we can all take to reduce our impact on the environment such as using LED bulbs, car sharing, using the car less, reducing use of plastics, using locally sourced food, but you could also help by…

Collecting data

There are many public participation surveys that anyone can take part in, such as:

  • Big Butterfly Count
  • Big Garden Birdwatch
  • Living with Mammals survey

These are just a few, there are many more.  Or, you can take part in a Bioblitz, which take place around the UK – 

Alternatively, join a group or society (a list of over 200 can be found on the NBN website – or use one of the many recording apps available on your smartphone.

One last thing 

If you are reading this blog, you are already interested in data, so please help spread the word about the importance of biodiversity data in conserving our wildlife, our well-being and most importantly – our planet.