The Database on the Web

Shropshire Botanical Society Newsletter 6- Spring 2002 - page 6-8

Alex Lockton

 

During the field meeting at Queen's Head last year, everyone present expressed enthusiasm at having the Flora database available over the internet. We discussed the perennial question of confidentiality, and agreed that it would be worth giving it a try to see whether there really were any ill effects from releasing the data. A few years ago it was generally seen as desirable to keep the locations of any uncommon plants highly secret, but a widespread feeling today is that any danger of deliberate harm to these plants is more than offset by the damage caused when site owners and managers do not know they are present on their land. In my experience this is true: organisations such as the Wildlife Trust, the National Trust and English Nature often have so little knowledge about the ecology of their sites that their management plans can cause more harm than good. Meanwhile, at Granville Country Park in Telford you can see people walking their dogs within inches of the huge spikes of Dactylorhiza x kerneriorum, and no-one seems to pick them. If the general public can be trusted, who, precisely, are we concealing this information from?

The main problem I come across when making data available is plagiarism by other botanists. I've supplied data to students and later found it repeated, almost verbatim, in their theses, masquerading as their own work. I've also supplied data to consultants and surveyors who, instead of then surveying properly, have simply copied our lists into their reports. This generates false records, so it is particularly undesirable. Finally, of course, there are lots of would-be records centres and other suppliers of botanical data, who love free handouts from naturalists societies but rarely give anything back. But these are all problems we can tackle through education and awareness-raising. The Botanical Society doesn't really lose anything if people behave irresponsibly. As I see it, we might as well get on and do our job properly and worry about other people later.

What is on the web site?

For this first attempt we have loaded up all the records of vascular plants and bryophytes prior to 1985. You can search by species, by grid square, or by site. When you complete a search, you are presented with a list showing the summary details of each record, as shown overleaf. Clicking on the site name or recorder's name gives you a full list of the records for that site or by that recorder. Clicking on the curly arrow to the left of any record shows you the full details of the record. Not everything on the database is actually loaded onto the web site, and you cannot (yet) perform many of the analyses that I can on the original data, but this does present you will almost everything that you would expect.

In addition to viewing lists, you can download all the records in your list as a csv (comma delimited) file, which allows you to study the data in your own time, or use it in other applications such as spreadsheets or mapping programs. The web site will also draw a map for you of any species, which can be viewed on screen or saved for printing. On screen, you can click on a dot and see what records there are for the species in question in that square.

What is not on the web site?

Nothing after 1985 is displayed on the internet, for several reasons. Firstly, the data we have collected since then is not systematic, and could lead to misapprehensions about any decline or increase in the distribution and abundance of a species. By using records up to Sinker's Flora, we have a relatively systematic and well-checked data set. But the main reason not to include the more up-to-date data is that it has a far greater potential to create problems. In general, the pre-1985 data is "historical" and probably won't lead to complications. But what about a recent survey by a living, practicing botanist who may, for instance, have made mistakes which we have rejected? Would we then include those errors and risk offending them? Or exclude them without explanation, and thereby present the audience with a data set that does not seem to accurately reflect the original survey?

Another potentially difficult situation is where a surveyor has collected records on private land. The recent CROW Act seems to make it illegal to record whilst walking along a public footpath. I would like to see this clarified before risking prosecution for any of our members.

Finally, I don't want to risk the Botanical Society being completely exploited. It costs the society a lot of money to collect and manage this data, and I hope we can raise the funds to allow us to continue to develop these services. This web site puts Shropshire in the forefront of natural history recording, but we will need to maintain the momentum if we are to stay there.

 

The main search window in the Shropshire Botany database

 

What next?

The biggest task for me is to continue to tidy up and structure the database. A lot of our records are without a site or a recorder. Many of these are irredeemable - simply tetrad records collected for the B species during the Flora Project, or on the M cards after that. These records are particularly difficult to use within a database. They're fine for producing dot maps, but when you generate a list of 160,000 records for the site of "Shropshire," the computer tends to stop responding. Also, they're useless if you need to know precisely where the plant was. I much prefer to have a site, partly as a way of breaking down the data, and partly because it is useful, ecologically, to know this information. There is the world of difference between a plant at "Earl's Hill" and one in "Habberley Brook," even though they may be in the same tetrad.

There are some changes I can make to improve the data. I could, for instance, assign all the Flora Project records to the 10km square coordinators. This would be partly justified on the grounds that the coordinators were supposed to be responsible for making sure the records were correct. This goes some way towards improving the data. In some counties people give names to grid squares, for instance every tetrad could have a name corresponding to a village in that square. This at least allows the viewer to get a rough idea about the location of a plant. "Diddlebury" is a lot more helpful than "SO5085" to the human eye. But this strikes me as a really drastic fudge, and it needs serious consideration. A tetrad can contain several sites, and the thought of assigning all the woodland plants that were pretty obviously recorded in Clunton Coppice to an arbitrary site called "Purslow Hall" does not appeal to me.

Fortunately, the information that most people want to see - the rarer plants - is generally better defined, and can be assigned to sites and recorders. This is an ongoing task, because although 6-figure grid references were given during the Flora Project, site names generally were not. It takes quite a lot of time to look up each record on the map and assign a suitable site, but we're getting there. In addition to that, eventually I need to look over all the records of each species and make sure the site names are assigned systematically. If you look on the web site at Helleborus foetidus, you will see a very different account to that given in this newsletter, because I have tidied up the records since sending them to our web designer, Alan Hale. The Farley Dingle population had multiplied itself into half a dozen sites and sprawled across three tetrads before I realised that there was just the one spot where it had always been.

Give us a few years, then, and the database will be much more usable. We should soon have a feedback form if anyone wants to make comments. Eventually you will be able to submit records across the internet. I don't see any reason why we should not bring forward the cut-off date to, say, 2000, in a few years' time, and if people are interested, we could easily add in other taxonomic groups such as dragonflies and moths. But there are also opportunities for members to get more involved. If we wanted, we could have written accounts and photographs for each species, site and recorder. You can see how that works on my other web site - www tpdb.org.uk. If the group wanted to take on this task, there is enough work there to keep everyone busy for quite a long time.

 

A typical list of records

 

Acknowledgements

The Shropshire Botanical Society web pages are maintained by Margaret Cole, Herefordshire Biological Records Centre manager (based at Herefordshire Council).

The internet database is managed by Alan Hale of Aberystwyth with funding from the Shropshire Botanical Society and Preston Montford Field Centre, using a data model developed by the Botanical Society of the British Isles.

 

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