Friday, 23 September 2016

Biological recording - is there a gulf between what recorders and recording schemes want?

Yesterday I posted a note on data extraction and management on the UK Hoverflies Facebook page. It was needed because I have reached a tipping point where I cannot keep on top of incoming data on my own. The problem has been exacerbated because Facebook seems to have developed a major glitch in which it fails to provide alerts to about 70% of posts and at times to all posts. That now means that the only way I can be sure of engaging with all posts is to constantly scroll through the page. Inevitably posts get missed.

There are two aspects to my missing posts. Firstly some people will find that their effort to engage goes unrewarded and they may get disillusioned. On the other hand, the scheme may miss out on records. Both situations are unsatisfactory, but I think the former is the most important - the point about a page linked to a scheme is that it is the outward face of the scheme and our main way of engaging, mentoring and encouraging. If we don't engage properly then we may lose that person who might ultimately go on to be a major recorder or better still a potential replacement for me or other members of the HRS team.

The ensuing engagement to my post was encouraging because there were a number of participants who were willing to look at ways of beta-testing a partial solution to the problem. My next job is to deliver that solution and I am hugely pleased to have recruited Geoff Wilkinson to help with this essential project.

Some other interesting points emerged that I think all of the recording community needs to think about. There is a strong body of opinion that favours the use of iRecord. I have no objection to this way of recording but, as I have written previously, it does have drawbacks.

The most striking drawback was drawn to my attention by somebody who e-mailed me rather than posting on the thread. In their comments (partially redacted to maintain anonymity) they said:

'I do put the very occasional photo up on BWARS and Diptera FB pages for an ID or confirmation (maybe 20 in total this year). There are times when you get a response but there are also times when you might get a few likes but no actual response at all. On the Diptera page' ...., 'responses, if they come, are often one or two word replies such as "Yes", "Calliphora", "Muscid" with little effort to explain why it may be hard to go further or what to look for'. 'My last post on Diptera was typical. I just wanted confirmation of' [a species] which I thought was a fly of interest.' The 'reply was "confirmed! Please iRecord". The reply didn't need any more than and I did put it on IRecord where it still awaits confirmation.' In a broader context it highlighted the general lack of verification, with large numbers of records in popular groups (moths and butterflies) going unverified. My correspondent went on to say 'One of the better schemes on iRecord is the ladybird scheme. They can take a few days to verify but you always get a nice email from them thanking you for your contribution.' It is a reminder to me - somehow I must look to follow their example.

Taking note of feedback

This feedback is really helpful because it reminds me why people engage on Facebook and also what they expect from iRecord.

One word answers on Facebook are not what is wanted - people want to know why a photo has been identified to that level. I have had similar complaints levelled at some of my responses on UK Hoverflies, so I am as guilty as anybody! We do need to engage and to explain why we have come to a particular conclusion. Unfortunately, that takes time, and there we hit the nub of the problem for biological recording: there are relatively few specialists who are prepared to engage, and those that do are stretched to the limits of their capacity. We must be grateful for the efforts of a relatively small minority and in that respect I must thank the team at UK Hoverflies: Ian, Joan and Judy, without whom the page would have collapsed a long while ago. I simply could not have managed on my own.

So, what is expected of iRecord? Well, the obvious thing is that people expect their records to be made use of and for them to be verified. If this does not happen, then the majority of potential recorders will probably be lost. I am very guilty in this respect with about 6,000 records awaiting verification. This is one of my jobs scheduled for the winter when (hopefully) I have a bit more time to deal with other administrative issues. Schemes that ask for recorders to place their records on iRecord really do need to verify data on a regular basis.

Why use Facebook then? Well, as I have previously noted, a very substantial proportion of Facebook group members are first and foremost photographers who want a name for their photos. Biological recording probably does not figure at first and it is only because the UK Hoverflies Group focuses on the recording aspect that this has become embedded. I dare say some contributors lose interest because of the call for data, but  I think we have to be realistic - we cannot please everybody! UK Hoverflies fits a very specific need and works because it meets the needs of the people that participate. Other pages must also meet contributor expectations but will be selective towards those who are happy with their approach.

Interactive engagement

The problem for all recording schemes is that they developed at a time when people used pen and paper, submitted record cards and if they were lucky got a brief letter of thanks in reply. Again I am as guilty as anyone for weaknesses in the response system. In this respect the internet is a great benefit as data submitted as a list by e-mail can be responded to quickly and easily!

BUT, we need to do a lot more. It is all very well submitting data, but what happens to it? Do all recorders get feedback? I fear that there are lots of recording schemes that are effectively moribund because they give no feedback. A few stalwarts do continue to engage, but if there is no evidence of activity, contributions wane. We saw this with the HRS after the publication of the first atlas; incoming data crashed as we ceased to engage, and it really only started to rise when we awoke from our slumber and started to work to produce a revised atlas.

The message is stark - it is all very well Government, NGOs and Agencies pushing for more biological recording, but the infrastructure needs to be there to meet the expectations of contributors. That is becoming a full-time job but of course is one where there is an increasing belief that data collection can be centralised without a two-way flow of information. Somehow this must change, but do we have the capacity?


  1. Interesting post. My teenage interest in insects was certainly encouraged by timely and positive responses to submitted records (and specimens) from knowledgeable people in the Essex Field Club. My identifications were not always correct and I valued the time they took to correct me and but also in providing an explanation. I experienced less than positive responses for other some taxonomic groups and I’m sorry to say my contributions were infrequent as a result! Of course, not every county has such an active natural history society. If I were starting out now, in my part of Scotland for instance, the Facebook group would likely have fulfilled much of that role. So I believe the group and particularly the high level of engagement within it will go some way to developing future recorders and organisers.

    I record wildlife for my own pleasure but to know it is appreciated and, more importantly, used to further knowledge/conservation aims gives added value and impetus. For those recording scheme organisers who give such feedback (i.e. acknowledge receipt of records and/or demonstrate how records are used) I admit I’m more malleable to changing my methods and investing a bit more time in the process to make their lives easier! I even started using iRecord for some taxa despite my own preference for spreadsheets... It will be interesting to see what new recording formats could be developed to make data extraction more efficient. I’m sure the goodwill generated from the personable approach to the FB community will be invaluable in this respect.

    Best wishes,


  2. Thanks Geoff and welcome to the team (I too prefer spreadsheets!