We all need to be data aware

Adder, South Downs National Park, Credit: author

Nationally, only 3.5% of all wildlife records, collated by biological record centers, originate from the consultancy sector (Tom Hunt, pers comm, 2015). This means, there is a vast amount of data collected from wildlife surveys such as bats, great crested newts, reptiles, water voles to name a few commonly surveyed species, existing and newly created habitats that is not been made available for third party use. This is a blow to the environmental sector as a whole and although there are honest reasons why this is happening, a shift in culture and policy at every level is needed to improve the situation, which we all recognize is a unsustainable state of affairs. 

It was the pro-activeness of Richard Smith, Environmental Manager of VINCI Group, a Build UK member and his intital discussion with Tom Hunt, Association for Local Environmental Record Centres (ALERC) that brought together a group of professionals from across the industry, to assist in inproving the current situation.

The confidentiality and commercially-sensitive nature of data is one of the major barriers to sharing data for consultants and relies on company policy and procedures to ensure wildlife data is shared regularly. To help facilitate this process, a number of Build UK members have looked at revising the ecological scope of works (i.e. the document that sets out what is required from consultants working for them), to make it their policy for consultants to share data to local record centres. This is most likely to be possible only once the development has completed the planning application process.

The current methods of sharing species data is also quite time consuming. Consultancies typically make use of voluntary staff to complete this job, or it is done in winter when its quieter. The Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management (CIEEM) and the National Biodiversity Network (NBN) have recently created The Consultants Portal to make it easier for data to be shared. There are also a number of on-line websites such as iRecord and Apps, but sharing data takes time, particularly when there is hundreds of records spanning several survey days and years, and so this still remains the major barrier to sharing data.

For those people that have access to Geographical Information Systems (GIS), whether that be: ArcGIS, MapInfo or open-source QGIS packages, this must be the easiest way to share data?! However, as there is currently no sector procedure the level of detail in GIS may vary from company to company, and from project to project.

The major benefit of sharing data using GIS files is the ability to share habitat data, not currently possible via alternative processes. This could include surveys of both existing habitats and new ones. The location of bat boxes, green roofs and SuDS features could be provided to local community groups who could then help maintain them in the long-term. These datasets could also provide a wealth of information to local authorities, to land managers and to academic research.

Call for Action:

Construction Professionals
Consider reviewing your companies Ecological Scope of Works to facilitate data sharing by ecological consultants that you employ. Sharing wildlife data beyond its original purpose is important and would be recognised as Corporate Social Responsiblity.  

Planning Authorities
We would encourage planning authorities to make sharing ecological data obligatory as part of a planning application, and so raise awareness of the importance of wildlife data to the industry.

Ecological Consultants
Test the method and begin sharing data using files created in GIS. In the first instance, making contact with the local records centre is advised.

Academic Researchers
Continue to ask for data and if there is reluctance, provide a link to this article or the other articles published on the subject.

Students and recent graduates
If you take up a voluntary position in an ecological consultancy, ask about their data sharing policy. Show this article, and facilitate a shift in company culture to aid sharing of more data.

For other questions, contact tom.hunt@alerc.org.uk.

Published articles
Sharing is Caring (2016) Geographical Information for Greater London (GIGL) 
Sharing data useing GIS files (2016) CIEEM Inpractice Magazine
Share your data! (2016) Landscape Institute On-line News

Data sharing websites
The Consultants Portal  / iRecord