Lancaster University Home Page


IEPPP, Furness College, Lancaster University, Lancaster LA1 4YG, UK
Tel: +44 (0)1524 594951 Fax: +44 (0)1524 593186 E-mail:
Home > Background


Databases, naturalists and the Global Biodiversity Convention is a satellite project that originated from the three year project: "Amateurs as Experts" Harnessing New Knowledge Networks for Biodiversity. The present project wants to investigate the knowledge networks that exists when recording biological data and how this knowledge fits to the UK's policy on biodiversity.

This study needs to be set in context within the UK Biodiversity Policy.


The UK Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) was launched in the UK in 1996 as a response the UN Convention on Biological Diversity that emerged as an outcome of the 'Rio Earth Summit' held in 1992. This plan was the official strategy of the UK to tackle its environmental problems. One of the needs that was recognised, was to know as better as possible, the extent of biodiversity in the UK. Key players in the role of biological recording are the 100,000 volunteers that exists individually or are part of the Natural History Societies. They have a vital role in recording biodiversity in the UK however their importance sometimes has been underestimated.

At the same time, in 1995, the report from the Co-ordinating Commission for Biological Recording (CCBR) was published. This included a detailed national scheme for Biological Recording.


The National Biodiversity Network

From both the UK BAP and the report from the CCBR, there was a proposal of forming a UK-wide biological recording network and the National Biodiversity Network partnership was founded.


NBN webpageThe NBN has been developed through a consortium of conservation agencies in the UK (English Nature, Countryside Commision for Wales, Scotish Natural Heritage, Environment Agency, Joint Nature Conservancy Council, Departme of Environment Food and Rural Affairs), research organisations such as Natural Environment Research Council, Natural History Museum and non-governmental stakeholders such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Wildlife trusts, NFBR and the Marine Biological Association. The aims of this internet information network are to do with increasing efficiency in producing biodiversity information; standardising taxonomic and various other practices; increasing accessibility and use of biodiversity information amongst conservationists, naturalists, the biodiversity policy community, and the public more generally.


The concept behind the NBN is quite simple. Recorders from whatever background, skill, affiliation or interest group would lodge their record(s) or data base(s) with a data custodian. The data custodian would make this information available to users of the network using the Internet and a dedicated ‘Gateway’ or portal, which in its turn will use ‘dictionaries’ and an index or catalogue of metadata to help search for the information necessary to answer individual queries.

The different ways of recording information about the natural world is the central issue about this project.


Collecting information about the natural worlde

In the UK there has been a long tradition of biological recording. Already in 1850 there were enough Botanical Records for the whole UK. It is estimated that there are tens of millions of records in the country from fungi and lichens to birds and higher plants.

Naturalist record their information about the natural world in several ways: from cards, diaries, spreadsheets to more sofisticated sofwares. An example of hese are Mapmate and Recorder.

Mapmate is a software package that was developed by a private organization, Teknica, for gathering and managing biological data. It is becoming more widely used by many different conservation organizations, even to those that were part of the original NBN consortium, such as RSPB and BSBI. It is also especially popular with a range of individuals and local and national natural history societies, which together produce important biological recording data for conservation policy use. Its main strength lies in its attempt to incorporate consideration of the particularities of locally based user data collection practices and especially user expectations in terms of data representation and use. These issues were factored into the design of the software package. This design has been successful and is presently considered as meeting the needs of a substantial component of the biological recording community in the UK. Mapmate is perceived, by the promoters of the NBN and Recorder 2002, as an alternative but competing model for data production, organisation and representation.

Recorder, on the other hand, is a software that has been developed by the Join Nature Conservancy Council (JNCC) and was designed following the data model of the National Biodiversity Network to feed into it. It has been designed taking into consideration the needs of different organisations, mainly the NBN partners. It is mainly used to collate data and to manage large databases.

The Social Life of Databases

The most important group involved in biological recording in the UK is the community of about 100,000 active volunteer naturalists, specialising in a wide range of plant and animal taxa. Such individuals, and the natural history societies they are often members of, are largely ‘data gatherers’, but also ‘data users’. It is widely acknowledged that this amateur naturalist community forms the backbone of the UK biodiversity recording network and policy-makers are beginning to recognise the significance of volunteer naturalist participation in terms of knowledge production as contributing to conservation policy. Whilst the harnessing of this repository of biodiversity knowledge by policy bodies is proving to be a fruitful exercise, it is not without its complexities (Ellis and Waterton 2004). Of particular significance to the proposed research are the choices made by different parts of the aforementioned communities regarding the contribution and use of data to and from the two very different databases. Choices as to whether, or not, to align one’s recording effort to one or another database have, in effect, serious implications for the viability and robustness of databases as a basis for policy action.

Both databases are dependent upon active participation of the networks of naturalists observing nature on a regular basis in the UK. But as demonstrated by a growing literature on public participation and engagement in science and policy, the dynamics of participation and enrolment may often be fraught with misaligned expectations and assumptions on the part of both the enrollers of participation and participants (Bartlett 2000, Cooke & Kothari 2001, Cornwall and Gaventa 2001, Ellis & Waterton 2004, Goodwin 1998). As such, emerging forms of participation and specifically data production, exchange
and use, may take unanticipated directions.

This appears from preliminary evidence to be occurring within the UK as a significant portion of the UK amateur naturalist community are placing their data and their trust in alternative participatory networks to the officially endorsed NBN – such as Mapmate.



Science in Society  logo


| The Study | Research Team | Background |
| Methods and Dissemination | Progress |