Lies, damned lies and then there’s data

I made a connection to Northumberland Wildlife Trust quite a few years before we returned north to live. A mutual friend and now our President, Conrad Dickinson, had told our CEO, Mike Pratt, that I was responsible for data and information in a large research organisation and we were doing some leading edge things with it. So Mike and a colleague travelled down to the British Geological Survey, near Nottingham, to see our immersive, virtual reality, facility.

Their interest was how Trusts could use spatial information, like aerial photography and elevation, geological, hydrological, bathymetric and landscape data to model and visualise future scenarios. Things like how a small rise in sea level would affect Druridge Bay and its hinterland, or explore the spatial relationships between rocks and topography and changing landcover (ecology) at small and large scales.

To be honest, it is hard not to be blown away by the facility. You sit in a darkened room in front of a five metre screen with stereo glasses on and everything is in three dynamic dimensions around you. You feel like you could reach out and touch the landscape, you duck and dodge around cliffs and mountains, you can see individual walls and hedges and even the white lines in the middle of the roads. The software brings the data to life. That last sentence is pretty crucial and one word of it is what this post is about: data.

The software is amazing, but without data, and data of the right quality, resolution and extent, it is nothing more than a plaything. What makes it relevant and game-changing is having good, extensive, environmental data available. Data is a subject Mike, the Trustees and I have discussed at length ever since. 

Like every other organisation, the Trust gathers data. For us it can be the location and numbers of released water voles, or planted trees, or red squirrels, or wild cranberries; the list is long and it isn’t restricted to plants and animals. We need to know the location, extent and condition of our reserves, and for welfare and effectiveness reasons, of our staff and volunteers. Luckily almost all of that data can now be digital, but unfortunately that doesn’t mean that it’s as accessible as we’d like it to be, or in a format so it can be integrated and shared. Getting to that stage will involve us in a lot of work and resources. Resources that are hard to acquire.

But it’s essential we do it and collect, manage and disseminate our data coherently and consistently. Unless we do, our ambitions for nature recovery and networks will not succeed. After all we will only know if nature has recovered if we knew what it was like before, and without knowledge of the location and extent of wildlife and their corridors, how can we establish networks? 

The Trust rarely works alone, many of our initiatives are partnerships with other Trusts, or with organisations like Northumberland National Park, or Forestry England. To achieve our common goals, we need to be able to share and integrate our data with theirs. And at the same time we need to share our data and conclusions with our members and the wider community - digitally and spatially and online. Our success and integrity as an organisation depends on that openness and transparency.

Since the advent of the Covid-19 crisis, data and transparency about that data, has become a very topical and contentious subject for us all. We now know how critical good quality data is to tracking and controlling the virus. We have become familiar with graphs and spikes and R numbers. We want data to be available, and timely, and honestly presented. 

Data may often be puzzling, disputed and sometimes contradictory, but no one questions the need for it anymore.