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< Contents ERCIM News No. 63, October 2005

Providing Access to Biodiversity Data in the National Biodiversity Network

by Charles Hussey and Steve Wilkinson

The National Biodiversity Network (NBN) is a partnership working to build the UK’s first network for sharing biodiversity information. A number of services and tools are being developed to mobilise the large quantity of data present in the UK.

A report by the Co-ordinating Commission for Biological Recording, in 1995, recognised that there were at least 60,000 active biological recorders in the UK, 2,000 organisations were involved and 60 million species records had been accumulated. This report was instrumental in the formation of the NBN in 2000. The NBN includes the UK Countryside agencies, the Wildlife Trusts, Environment Agency, Natural History Museum (NHM), Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC), Biological Records Centre (BRC) and other partners. The NBN currently provides free access online to over 18 million species records and these are also contributed to the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF).

An important part of the work of the NBN Trust is ensuring that access to data is free at point of use, whilst letting data providers exercise control over the level of detail. The NBN Trust has built up considerable experience in the field of Intellectual Property and database rights. They have drafted template agreements for data providers, data collators and end users, as well as putting in place the technical web components to manage the process. A data exchange standard, incorporating an XML Data Type Definition, has been established. The NBN is also responsible for the GBIF UK National Node.

Delivering Data
The NBN’s main portal to data is through the NBN Gateway, which was launched as an operational system in June 2004. The construction and management of the Gateway is a joint venture by JNCC and BRC. Special mapping displays have been developed for this project. Polygon information allows generation of species lists within defined boundaries, such as protected sites. Extensive use is made of map layers, including Ordnance Survey maps and land cover. 136 different datasets containing over 18.6 million records have been integrated to allow searching by species, designated site or by 10 km square.

Gathering Data
A software application for use in biological recording is managed by JNCC. The current version is known as Recorder 2002. This is the latest in a pedigree that stretches back to the days of DOS, when the software was written in Advanced Revelation. The software has been developed with public funding and is available at very low cost through a network of re-sellers. The software is structured around surveys, sites and site visits and supports ‘virtual recording cards’ which mimic manual systems familiar to the recording community in the UK. Features include mapping using polygons and Ordnance Survey map tiles, bibliographic references and image handling. The application has been designed to accommodate additional modules. Recently the Musée national d’histoire naturelle, Luxembourg has extended Recorder with a comprehensive Collections Management module and a multi-lingual thesaurus.

Taxonomy is Complex
To properly account for what is found in a country requires a maintained taxonomy that tracks changes in nomenclature and classification. Ongoing taxonomic research may lead to splitting or lumping of species. Species may be reassigned to different genera and revisions made to higher classifications. In particular, names written into legislation may quickly become out of date and need be mapped to the current name. Within the NBN, this work is undertaken by the Species Dictionary project, which provides the taxonomy underpinning both the Gateway and Recorder. The Dictionary is managed by the NHM and has the ultimate aim of being the master list of what is found in the UK. It currently provides complete coverage for 70% of the 109 taxonomic groups recorded from the UK. It contains over 410,000 records from over 250 different checklists representing 190,000 separate variants of names. A Name Server is being developed that provides links between names and this will, in due course, be accessible through a web service to external applications.

Many of the current online biodiversity resources presume some knowledge of scientific names. The NHM received a grant from the New Opportunities Fund to create a website for use by the general public that would allow them to search using familiar common names - in particular, informal names for higher groups (such as “ants” or “conifers”). The site provides a finding aid for resources and images relating to UK wildlife. Common names are mapped to equivalent scientific names and presented in a display that encourages users to explore relationships between organisms. The default display is based on a classification showing broader and narrower terms but users can switch to a dynamic ‘spider-diagram’ display developed using software from

NBN Gateway:
NBN Species Dictionary:
Nature Navigator:

Please contact:
Charles Hussey, Species Dictionary Project , Manager, Natural History Museum, London, UK
Tel: +44 (0) 207 942 5213

Steve Wilkinson, Manager for NBN Gateway and Recorder projects, JNCC, Peterborough, UK
Tel: +44 (0) 1733 866 865