I’ve been involved with biological recording as a volunteer for over 40 years, and have worked in this area for about 20 years. Throughout that time there has been an ongoing debate about what system/s should be used for wildlife recording, with many views expressed about the pros and cons of spreadsheets, databases and online systems. That debate shows no sign of coming to an end!
One for all or all for one?
I think there are a couple of over-arching explanations for the lack of consensus. One is that there is always a conflict between having one system that everyone uses (which is great for bringing data together and should be simpler for people to get involved, but may not be perfect for a particular purpose), compared to having many bespoke systems (likely to perform better for particular purposes, but more difficult to bring lots of data together and more confusing for recorders to know where to send records).
The other is that there are many differing, and sometimes conflicting, ideas about how recording should be done, what level of detail is required, what level of control should be exercised (e.g. who should have the final say over editing and checking the records), and how the records should be checked and shared for wider use.
So having one system that is perfect for all of biological recording may be an unrealistic and even undesirable aim. But in the meantime those of us who run recording schemes have to make a choice about what to do. For the schemes I run, that choice is to recommend that records are entered into iRecord wherever possible, and this post explains why I’ve reached that decision.
What’s my agenda?
Two further things before I get properly started. I need to declare a blatant interest, in that I work for the UK Biological Records Centre, who set up iRecord, and part of my work is to support iRecord development. So you might be unsurprised to find that I am a fan of the system – I would (have to) say that wouldn’t I! However, I was an enthusiastic iRecord user before I started working at BRC, and the time I spend as a recording scheme organiser and iRecord verifier is entirely done as a volunteer.
Also, I am not trying to say that iRecord is the one true way, and everyone else has to follow suit. iRecord is a tool for biological recording – it is not perfect, and there are many other options out there, as shown by the wide range of solutions adopted by different recording schemes, who all manage to do amazing things with the systems that work for them. But I do want to explain why it is that I’ve settled on iRecord for my schemes. So I’d better get on to that!
Why I like iRecord
I have been county moth recorder for Berkshire since 1995, and have been organiser for the national Soldierflies and Allies Recording Scheme since 2012. For both these schemes iRecord is my preferred route for records to be sent in (although of course it is not compulsory and records arrive via many other routes as well).
Some of the things I like about iRecord:
- It brings together records from many different websites and apps and makes them available to my schemes in one place
- If people send in photos, they are stored with the records, I don’t have to spend time filing photos away and cross-referencing them
- It is free, widely available via websites and apps, and (relatively) easy for people to use (I now spend far less time doing computer support and installations for other recorders than I did when standalone databases were more widely used)
- It tracks which records I have checked and which I haven’t, making it simple to do blocks of verification when I have time, and then pick up again at a later stage
- It explicitly stores my verification decisions and any comments I need to add to them, so I can easily see why a decision was reached, and allows rejected records to be retained in case future queries arise over them
- People can see their records being added to the iRecord map instantaneously, which is great for ‘live’ recording projects such as ‘Bee-fly Watch‘ that tracks the emergence of these species each spring
- “Activity” pages can be added to provide feedback to recorders – here’s the Bee-fly Watch example from 2019:
- If people send me spreadsheets I can (with their permission) upload them into iRecord fairly easily so that the data gets combined in one place for me to check
- The records added to iRecord become immediately available to me for the recording scheme, and at the same time to the relevant local environmental records centre (if they wish to make use of them)
- I can ask iRecord to include my recording schemes in their regular uploads of records to the NBN Atlas – I don’t need to take any additional action to make this happen. Once on the NBN Atlas they are then passed on to GBIF, the global equivalent:
- I get to ‘meet’ (in an online sense) many recorders that I would not otherwise have been in touch with. Some of these only ever contribute one or two records, but others go on to make substantial contributions, and this is immensely rewarding to see
That’s quite a long list and I could go on (iRecord backs up the data, iRecord has some built-in rules for checking records against time of year and distribution, which are imperfect but still useful, etc.).
So it’s all good then?
I could also add a list of the things that I don’t like about iRecord, which would certainly include the times when it runs slowly or the page freezes, and there are other things which have pros and cons. And the relatively limited mapping and analysis tools within iRecord mean that I regularly download the data and use other systems such as QGIS for mapping. But for me the advantages of iRecord greatly outweight the disadvantages. And I live in hope that some of the downsides can be improved upon in future!
Bringing data together
Part of the original motivation for BRC’s development of iRecord was to encourage online recording to be as linked up as possible, in order to make the records available to national recording schemes and the county recorders associated with them. As online recording first became a reality there was a danger that a huge number of systems would be set up and records would get fragmented into many separate ‘silos’. iRecord allows records from many websites and apps to be brought together in one place and made available for verification.
And verification does depend on a lot of hard-working volunteers, all of whom are busy people with many calls on their time. Not all species have recording schemes, and not all schemes are active on iRecord, and it’s understandable that people sometimes get frustrated when their records on iRecord aren’t being verified, but a large and increasing proportion of records are being verified and that is all thanks to the dedicated and expert people who offer their time to carry out this role. For more on this see iRecord’s Help page on “Verification: what, who and why“.
It’s clear from discussions I have with other recording schemes and from online debates that iRecord does not meet everyone’s needs, and may never fully do so. And that’s fine – there is no one-size-fits-all answer to the whole of biological recording, and it’s good to have innovation from a variety of viewpoints. But for me iRecord helps a lot and I couldn’t imagine being able to run my schemes without it. Many thanks to all the recorders who have now added over 34,000 records of soldierflies and allies to iRecord, and over 100,000 records for moths in Berkshire!