Calling citizen scientists to save nature with a database
Liam Lysaght links good environmental information to good conservation policy
Liam Lysaght on Bull Island Unesco Reserve – the only biosphere in the world that lies completely in a capital city. Photograph: Jason Clarke
Work, life and values seem to be happily, even enviably, intermeshed for Liam Lysaght, director of the National Biodiversity Data Centre.
Seated at his desk at the centre, a large bungalow in Carriganore, Co Waterford, he is at the centre of a vast web of complex information on the status of the species in our environment, from lichen and mosses to robins and whales.
The centre has so far collated 3,500,000 records from the historical and contemporary research of dozens of organisations and hundreds of specialists, professional and amateur. It has augmented this knowledge with a remarkable 500,000 new records from 6,000 (and counting) citizen scientists that flow in daily. The threshold of a half million personal contributions was passed this summer, dovetailing nicely with the centre’s 10th birthday.
But while Lysaght the director has a sophisticated grasp of the dauntingly cerebral task of analysing this data, in ways that will – hopefully – inform national and local environmental policy, Lysaght the private individual always likes to get his boots on the ground.
Driving from Kilkenny on the morning of our interview, he spotted a striking small bird from his car. It was a yellowhammer, a beautiful and increasingly scarce farmland bird – the one whose song is often rendered in bird books, bafflingly to some of us, as “a-little-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheese”.
Lysaght stopped, got out of his car, and heard a second yellowhammer calling. Like a good citizen scientist, he fired off this news on his smartphone app, adding to his personal 400-plus records for this year alone, and keeping him close to the top of the centre’s slightly competitive league of amateur reporters.
What’s the point, though? Why do we need a national centre to pick up these records, when a dozen national nature organisations already cater very well for the many people who keep lists of plants and animals that they see?
You can’t speak to Lysaght for more than five minutes without getting the point, and it’s always closely related to environmental policy – and the lack of it: “Despite Ireland having a stated policy of halting biodiversity loss, we still don’t know how many species there are in Ireland, and how they are distributed. If you don’t know what you have, how can you protect it?”
He clearly takes the centre’s strategic mission to use its data to inform decision-making, and to communicate with the public, very seriously indeed. He does not mince words about the urgent need to reinvent our whole approach in this area.
“Since I was a kid in the 1960s, the situation for conservation has just got worse every decade, and it’s still getting worse. Clearly, we are doing something very wrong, and we have to try something new.”
Before focusing on that contentious topic, however, he addresses questions on the nuts and bolts of how recording works. Firstly, aren’t the sightings of citizen scientists much more a reflection of where particular citizens live, and of what their interests are, than of the status of a particular species?
He accepts that this is the case with very basic recording, but stresses that the centre runs regular workshops to train citizen scientists up through several stages to provide much more systematic and, therefore, scientifically significant records. The “gold standard” is based on a recorder undertaking to survey the same route every week for 28 weeks of the year, yielding much more statistically significant information.
And even the most casual record of a common species, he says, fulfils the centre’s mission to communicate with the public about the pleasure of engagement with the natural world.
But how reliable are such casual records? Rookie naturalists in any field have a natural tendency to mistake common species for rarities, and vice versa. Even experts often make mistakes.
Lysaght points out that the centre uses a standardised process of validation for records of rarities, or of common species occurring in unexpected places, or out of their normal seasonal range.
Such records can, of course, be particularly important, as they may indicate changes in distribution, and responses to climate change. So they are always stored, but only admitted to the main data base after scrutiny of several factors. These range from the expertise of the recorder to the number of times similar unexpected records recur. And a photograph confirming one such record today may build a case for validating previously rejected ones.
Isn’t there another danger, though? One of the beauties and strengths of the centre’s online data is its very precise and detailed mapping. Doesn’t publishing this information on the location of rare species add to the risks they already face, from disturbance by over-eager amateurs to theft by professional plant collectors and egg collectors? This was an objection raised by some veteran naturalists at the outset; some of them still refuse to release their records to the centre.
“Of course, we have a duty of care to species at risk,” Lysaght agrees. So they use a filter whereby more vulnerable species are only shown on online maps at a scale of 1sq km, whereas most species are shown at a scale of 100sq m. He adds that if sensitive information is not on published maps in some form, the centre’s aim of informing public decision-making will be undermined, and that that is a greater danger to biodiversity in the long term than disturbance and theft.
The centre’s very small seven-person staff combine skills in ecology and natural history with information modelling. The growing mass of data it manages is now sufficient to permit the development of bioclimatic maps that enable more accurate prediction of future trends, both for species and entire ecosystems.
However, these must always be verified by more field work, more boots on the ground, more citizen scientists.
To become a recorder for the centre – it’s very simple – or just to browse the range of information and projects it offers, visit biodiversityireland.ie
‘These things are special, we should celebrate them
The National Biodiversity Data Centre is a hybrid of public and private sectors, though its data will always be in the public domain.
It was set up by the Heritage Council, autonomous but government appointed. The work was then contracted out to a private company, Compass Informatics, which tendered for the contract with a team led by Liam Lysaght.
While the centre does not formulate policy, Lysaght clearly believes passionately that the only rationale for collecting data on biodiversity is to assist in managing our environment better.
“The information we gather must galvanise action,” he says. “There is an urgent need for an effective national champion for biodiversity. We have to move away from seeing conservation as a negative, about prohibition. We should be saying ‘these things are very special, let’s celebrate them’.
“There is a political dimension to this, and we are falling down badly here. We need an agency that energetically promotes the value of biodiversity the way the Wild Atlantic Way, with all its problems, promotes landscapes.
“We shouldn’t be distrustful and arrogant about public attitudes. I find there are a lot of people out there, including many farmers, who want to do the right thing for their local environment, but they get no credit or encouragement.
“We need to give them respect and we need to give them resources to do the job. That would be good formula to start with.”