The 12th NBN Conference took part on the 23rd of November at the Royal Society. The National Biodiversity Network (NBN) is an initiative in the United Kingdom to capture, integrate and distribute biodiversity information via various (online) media. People can submit or download species observations by means of an open access portal called NBN Gateway. Most of the biodiversity data is collected through participatory schemes and voluntary groups. Hence the NBN members have valuable experience regarding the management of citizen science projects.
As underlined during some of the talks, the main idea and the purpose of NBN is the creation of a simple data flow that will empower the collectors and will improve the quality of the collected data. The main focus is to ensure that the same job will not be done twice and to create a single database with accessible datasets for everyone. The statement by Keith Porter, from Natural England, “Collect once and use many times” sets the scene for an interesting discussion about the importance of having easily accessible datasets. Indeed, an open access approach lists many advantages and in my opinion, instead of reinventing the wheel every time and creating different projects to collect similar data, researchers should be able to have access to information already captured and use them in different cases to validate hypotheses or research questions. However, in order to reach the level of having a central, common database, researchers have to ensure the quality of their data and therefore some presentations explored the significance of minimizing errors and validating data. In my view, data validation and the creation of some rules of thumb regarding the collected data, especially in volunteering schemes where the initial inexperience of the recorders could cause anomalies to the datasets, is the first step in the process of creating an unified database.
The participation to citizen science projects has increased dramatically in recent years, particularly the participation in biological and biodiversity projects leading to millions of collected records. Many researchers, instead of focusing on data quality, attempted to spot the reasons for this trend and this increase. Linda Davies from the OPAL Project believes that local knowledge is important and people feel valuable when they participate into projects. This feeling makes them collect as many records as possible and change their behaviour towards the environment. Michael Pocock from the NERC Centre, thinks that the reasons for this increase are the technological advances in combination with growing concerns out the state of the environment (as well as other sustainability challenges) that motivate people to join citizen science projects. During the conference Michael Pocock also presented NERC’s newly released Guide to Citizen Science, which includes a study on various citizen science projects and tries to set some rules for the development and implementation of citizen science projects. According to Pocock and his co-authors, in citizen science is easy for users to get in but really easy to get out; therefore, there should be some basic rules of practice to ensure the maximum effectiveness of a project. I regard that initiatives like that, creating guides of good practices, in combination with validation algorithms may lead to more qualitative datasets and facilitate the transition to a common database.
In summary, the take home message from the NBN is that as technology advances and the trust in data increases, citizen science will grow and eventually can lead to real science with important results.