Data analytics takes flight at UK RSPB

Jessica Twentyman Profile picture for user jtwentyman September 24, 2015
Summary:
The UK-based conservation charity is using data analytics, both in its own work in increasing flagging bird populations and for influencing wider government policy.

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Skylark

If you tend to associate the work of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) with bird boxes hung hopefully in suburban gardens, day trips to nature reserves and cheery robins on Christmas cards, then think again.

Those things are important, but this UK-based conservation charity also packs some serious scientific clout. In April 2013, British ecologist Professor Sir John Lawton chaired an independent review of the RSPB’s scientific programme and concluded that it was:

... outstanding. The quality, depth and breadth of its research would be regarded as excellent in any large, internationally competitive UK university.

He also advised that it deserved to be better known, which led to the charity bringing all its research together under the umbrella of a new RSPB Center for Conservation Science.

Today, the center employs around 60 post-doctoral scientists, working to understand, for example, rapid population decline in particular bird species and testing and developing robust conservation solutions.

The research these scientists carry out relies heavily on their ability to access and analyse data. It’s how they know, for example, that between 1995 and 2013, British cuckoo populations fell by 46 percent, wood warblers by 58 percent and turtle doves by 91 percent.

Fledgling

But bird population data - some collected by volunteers and much of it by professionals - is only the start of what the RSPB analyses, says Dr Will Peach, the charity’s head of research delivery:

In order to try and understand environmental factors that may be affecting birds and other wildlife, we may use weather data from the Met Office. We may use agricultural statistics from government departments like DEFRA [the UK Department for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs]. We might use oceanographic data to understand changes in sea currents and sea-surface temperatures.

Also, these days, we’re increasingly using remote sensing data from satellites which tells us a lot about changes in habitat extent. As time goes by, the amount of data that’s available and relevant for this kind of analysis is increasing exponentially.

The RSPB uses a large range of tools from business intelligence company SAS Insitute [www.sas.com] to analyse this data, including SAS/STAT for statistical analysis, SAS/ETS for econometric and time-series analysis and SAS Visual Data Discovery, for interactive data visualization.

The outputs of these efforts, says Dr Peach, form the basis of scientific papers submitted to academic journals for peer review, internal reports, applications for grant funding from external organisations and submissions to government representatives in the RSPB’s work of advocating for policy change.

On that last point, it’s thanks to the data analysis performed by RSPB scientists that skylark plots have become a familiar feature on UK farmland. Skylarks nest on the ground, in vegetation that is 20cm to 50 cm high - but the trend among farmers to sow cereal crops in winter rather than spring means crops become too tall and dense for skylarks to nest in throughout the season, leading to drastic declines in bird populations.

The introduction of skylark plots - unplanted patches of around 6 metres square in fields of crops - gives them somewhere to nest and forage, resulting in improved breeding rates. As a direct result of RSPB’s lobbying, skylark plots are now part of the EU’s Environmental Stewardship scheme, by which farmers can receive payments for taking steps to ensure better environmental management of their farms.

Dr Peach describes the analysis that backed up its submission to the UK government like this:

First, we set out to show that skylarks struggled to raise enough young to maintain population numbers in tall, dense crops. So we studied skylark populations in different types of cropping systems, looking at the distribution of birds in different crops and analysing that data in SAS.

Second, we conducted an experiment over several years across 12 farms in England, monitoring the response of birds to fields with skylark plots versus fields without them, showing that fields with skylark plots held more skylarks and that those skylarks raised more young. Again, a lot of data was generated and analysed in SAS.

Then we wrote up that work and banged on the minister’s door. We were clearly able to demonstrate a practical solution that’s very cost-effective - it costs the farmer very little in lost wheat. It’s easy for them to implement, but it has a huge positive impact on the birds.

It’s unusual for a charity to have such an extensive scientific capability, he says, but it’s extremely effective in both implementing its own conservation work - the charity has an estate of more than 200 nature reserves in the UK as well as chunks of rainforest around the world - and for influencing government policy. Data is a big part of that:

If you’ve got reasonable evidence from data that a conservation issue exists and a tried and tested solution to it, then it’s much less likely that resources get wasted on implementing an intervention that won’t address it effectively.

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