This blog is intended to begin a conversation about where we, as the Local Environmental Record Centre (LERC) sector, want to be headed. Our strategic direction.
I’ll start with some chat about how I see things – as manager of Sussex Biodiversity Record Centre and Chair of ALERC. But if you’re interested enough to read this blog, I want to hear your perspective! This conversation will feed into a refresh of the ALERC strategy. The goal is to identify some strategic objectives all us LERC folk can get behind.
I guess most of us in the LERC sector have experienced people telling us our business models are broken. This is, of course, demonstrably not true: the LERC sector continues to provide trusted environmental data & information services across much of the UK. Thankfully, the national conversation around biodiversity data now seems to be moving on. I sense that, over the last couple of years, the tone of discussions within the NBN Network, and with the NBN Trust, has been changing. I’m hearing much more emphasis on collaboration and supporting the Network, including from the NBN Trust’s new Chair.
The debate around open data – toxified somewhat by the position Natural England took when it withdrew from funding agreements with LERCs – also seems to have mellowed. There is recognition in the SBIF Review that a fully ‘open data infrastructure’ is only viable if publicly funded. Parts of the Government in Westminster also seem to be talking sense, such as in HM Treasury’s discussion paper on ‘The economic value of data’ which says: "[open data] may not be the right approach … where data is already monetised, and where making it open would remove a source of income. This could harm business models which use resale to invest in better data gathering, and in the public sphere, could result in taxpayers replacing lost revenue". LERCs in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland continue to provide services to the countryside agencies and in England it looks like we’re on track to renew data licences with the Environment Agency. This is welcome recognition of the value of LERCs’ services.
In the East of England, Herts Environmental Records Centre (HERC) has been working with other LERCs in the region to produce a heat map showing the number of NERC act (section 41) species recorded in each monad. This was one of the recommendations of the Making “Open” Work workshop with the Open Data Institute, organised by GiGL, and is a great example of how open data could help to advertise and showcase LERC data services. ALERC is now working with HERC to explore options for deploying derived datasets such as this.
I am, however, very aware that, in some parts of the UK, LERCs are operating under extremely precarious funding arrangements and – in Scotland especially – some areas do not have access to the types of services that LERCs typically provide. We are waiting to see how Scottish Government responds to the SBIF Review recommendations, and what a deliverable outcome might look like.
LERCs have successfully weathered some stormy years, with funding cuts and major disruption associated with the switch to the NBN Atlas. Yet still the winds of change blow…
The NBN Trust has heard our clamour for… *whispers*… ‘access controls’ and has secured an HLF Resilient Heritage grant to explore how the NBN Atlas can become more sustainable and responsive to users’ needs. Jo Judge has told ALERC that this will include “exploring the option of having a two tier system to enable approved enhanced access to high resolution data that is not available publicly,” as well as “exploring options for income generating services at the multi-regional and national scales”.
We may yet regain ‘access controls’! There is, however, no appetite for funding this mechanism from the public purse. If we want this, we need to find a space in the service-delivery arena that the NBN Trust can occupy. Where they can add value. And where they can get paid.
Jo Judge has been very clear in discussions with ALERC that “we have no desire to provide local level services or take over existing arrangements for regional services currently provided by LERCs (unless LERCs would like us to?)”. I personally believe that the NBN Trust is genuine in wanting to find a way forward that is mutually beneficial for Network members and the NBN Trust, e.g. by engaging with new audiences, and new customers.
ALERC exists, first and foremost, to promote LERCs. We have therefore been careful to explain that the LERC network has already tapped significant chunks of the market for national and regional services, for example in Wales where LERC Wales provides access to national datasets and in various regions in England where LERCs are already working across borders to provide services to the likes of water companies, Network Rail and the National Trust. A crucial first step will be for NBN Trust to engage with LERCs to identify untapped markets. There is scope for our ALERC National Coordinator, Tom Hunt, to be involved in facilitating these discussions – we would be keen to hear ALERC members’ views on how you want to be involved.
These new developments around the potential role of NBN Trust and NBN Atlas have happened in parallel with work ALERC has been doing, trialling a national ALERC data exchange system (AXS). ALERC Directors will therefore need to assess the costs and benefits of progressing that further – as the likelihood of the NBN Trust providing similar functionality becomes clearer.
These developments are highly relevant to LERCs’ core functions: providing access to biodiversity data & information services. We will have plenty to do just figuring out what a future relationship between LERCs and the NBN Trust could look like and how the NBN Atlas might need to develop to support this. But the world is also turning around us.
Defra’s 25 Year plan places focus on a Nature Recovery Network. As custodians and managers of high quality local habitat data, LERCs must surely have a role in delineating England’s Nature Recovery Network – but what will this look like in practice?
We heard in the Chancellor’s Spring Statement that the government will use the forthcoming Environment Bill to mandate ‘biodiversity net gain’. ALERC had discussions with Defra during the consultation and published a prospectus, as well as our consultation response. Now it looks like this is really happening. We need to be ready to move quickly from ideas towards implementation – if we want the LERC sector to have a role in providing supporting services.
It is a unique selling point of LERCs that we are local. We have evolved as a network of separate organisations – adapted to meet local requirements and engage local recording communities. LERCs have lots in common with each other – reflected in the LERC accreditation framework which, as ALERC members, we are all committed to working towards. But we can also be quite different creatures, with different strengths and perhaps different priorities.
As LERC leaders, some of us will feel invigorated by the winds of change blowing around us. Some of us may fear being blown away. From a strategic point of view, we must decide whether to hunker down and keep doing what we know we’re good at. Or feel the wind beneath our wings and see where engaging with new service delivery models and new agendas carries us.
I feel certain that the more we can organise ourselves to work together as a sector – the greater will be the sum of our parts. I fully recognise that’s not always easy. As LERC leaders, we are each answerable to our own governing bodies and we operate under different constraints. That’s why I want to begin the refresh of the ALERC Strategy as a conversation. As an exploration of what we could do as a sector, if …
The ALERC Directors would love to hear your perspective on what should be the key strategic priorities for ALERC, for the next five years (2020-2025). Please join the conversation over on the ALERC discussion forum, or add your comments to this public blog.