NBN Conference 2015

John SawyerLast week the FSC's Biodiversity team, including Tom.bio, attended the National Biodiversity Network (NBN)'s 2015 Conference in York. It was an inspirational and poignant two days, following so closely after the untimely death of NBN CEO John Sawyer earlier this month. Much has been written about what a huge loss John is to the biological recording community, and there were many fitting tributes paid at the conference; from a Tom.bio perspective he was always a big supporter of the project and a huge champion of biological recording and open data. Our heartfelt condolences go to his family, friends and colleagues.

Award Winners 2015The conference departed from its usual London-based one day format, and this year was spread over two days in York. One advantage of this change in format was that it allowed an evening event to be held - the presentation of the inaugural UK Awards for Biological Recording and Information Sharing. This was a fantastic event, recognising the achievements of adults and young people in biological recording for both terrestrial/freshwater and marine ecosystems. Particularly inspiring were the presentations made in the under 18s categories - the two recipients, despite being only 12 and 13, made most of the adults in the room feel like major under-achievers! Their prize included some rather nice Swarovski binoculars, objects of desire for many of those present!

Katy PottsOne of my favourite parts of the conference were the sessions of five minute 'speed talks'. Presentations for the short-of-attention Twitter generation?  Maybe, but I found these short talks especially interesting, as it forced the speakers to condense what they had to say to the most important few points, and left absolutely no room for superfluity. A great way of quickly sharing a project's concept, aims or results, and guaranteed to keep the attention of even the most jaded conference attendee!

One of these speed talks was by Katy Potts, who gave a brilliant snapshot of what it's like being part of the 'Identification Trainers for the Future' scheme, which is supported by the FSC. This is a training programme designed to intensively train and mentor five young people and help them develop the taxonomic knowledge and ID skills to progress their careers in biological recording and identification.

Seasearch logoThis targeted approach - devoting intensive time and effort into developing a very small number of people - contrasts with that taken by the Seasearch citizen science project, described in a very engaging presentation by Paula Lightfoot.  This approach encourages as many divers as possible to undertake various levels of training, in order to be able to record marine habitats and species during their dives. Although this approach has the potential to generate large numbers of records, there is inevitably quite a high drop-out rate, with a reletively large proportion of people attending the initial training but then never submitting records. What came across is that there is no wrong or right approach to take when it comes to developing people's ID skills.  Sometimes a sustained, high-investment approach targeted at a small number of a people with the hope that all of them continue with their biological recording is best; sometimes a wider, broader investment across a much greater number of people is more suitable.

Earthworm.  Illustration: C BellTom.bio's own Rich Burkmar also gave a presentation. He spoke about one of Tom.bio's exemplar projects - the development of multi-access keys - and showcased the brand new earthworm key which we've been working on. In particular, he highlighted the importance of multi-access, web-based keys for more than just species ID - they can be used to visualise and explore data, acting as a learning tool in their own right. For example, using our key try colouring the UK's earthworm species by a factor of your choice - length, ecological niche, head shape etc - and see how it aids your overall understanding of UK earthworms.

Children looking at rockpoolsAnother highlight for me was a presentation given by Ryan Clark, a young, self-taught biological recorder who gave a quietly compelling talk on the importance of engaging young people in the natural world, and the struggles many of them face. I find it incredibly sad that having an interest in the natural world makes so many young people the target of school bullies, or at the very least isolates them from their peers. Ryan's talk really highlighted the importance of feeling part of a network of like-minded young people, and of the important - if not vital - supporting, teaching and encouraging role that an older mentor can play. His plea - if you know a child or young person who has the spark of an interest in nature - then help them make sure it doesn't get extinguished.

All in all a great couple of days - and a chance for me to match some faces to names among the UK's biological recording community.  I look forward to next year!

Further information

For more information on the Tom.bio project, visit our Homepage. For more information on upcoming training courses run by FSC, click here.