Surprisingly, there has never been a statutory requirement for any one organisation to collect biological records on a long-term basis.
Despite this a national Biological Records Centre was set up in 1964 to collate data, particularly from voluntary recording schemes, to make information available to conservation bodies and to publish the results. The lack of co-ordinated resources to work with local and national recorders resulted in no one organisation being able to see the whole picture. As pressures to report on the environment increased so did the urgency to improve the situation.
The impetus to set up the National Biodiversity Network finally came from the Biodiversity Action Planning process, following the 1992 Rio Summit and a report from the “Coordinating Commission for Biological Recording” which led a number of organisations in the UK to come together in 1997 to pool resources to build the NBN and simplify data exchange in the UK.
The NBN Trust
The National Biodiversity Network Trust was set up as an independent charity in 2000 to oversee and facilitate the development of the Network. The Trust is also supported by a wide range of biodiversity data contributors and users and through a membership scheme. It is governed by a Board of Trustees. When it was established the Board of Trustees was formed from the membership organisations, but this was changed in 2018 to ensure all business competencies were covered. The Board of Trustees from 2018 comprises senior managers who are experts in their field whether this is information management, business development or biological recording.
Initial hopes that the Millennium Commission would support the NBN Project were not fulfilled, but the principal organisations, voluntary and government-sponsored, formed an informal consortium to carry the work forward. These founding organisations were:
- The Joint Nature Conservation Committee
- English Nature (now Natural England)
- The Natural History Museum
- Natural Environment Research Council (through its Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, home of the Biological Records Centre)
- Royal Society for the Protection of Birds
- The Wildlife Trusts
- National Forum for Biological Recording (representing local and voluntary sector recording communities especially)
These were joined by the
- Countryside Council for Wales (now Natural Resources Wales)
- Scottish Natural Heritage
- Environment Agency
- and the Marine Biological Association
From the outset, it was recognised that for the NBN to succeed there would need to be a raft of specific projects and activities:
- A standard data model to underpin the entire system.
- Data capture and collation software that could meet agreed standards.
- A common set of data exchange principles accepted by all participants.
- An internet-based system to allow data to be searched and delivered to users.
For the system to work, it became apparent that other things were needed as well:
- Development of standard taxonomic and habitat dictionaries to enable data to be indexed and searched.
- Guidance and help with issues related to confidentiality, personal or sensitive data and intellectual property rights, so that constraints on data use would be minimised.
- Help with improving the management of data so they could adopt the necessary formats.
- Help with understanding how to take part, and resources and encouragement to do so.
The NBN Trust’s approach was to set up a range of projects to take these areas of work forward in parallel, because each tended to be dependent on another:
- Production of an NBN Data Model and data exchange system
- Development of the NBN Gateway and search engine. (This was replaced in April 2017 by the NBN Atlas)
- Development of the electronic Species Dictionary and Habitats Dictionary.
- Production of guidance on practical issues concerning data exchange.
- Projects to enhance the awareness and capabilities of the main potential suppliers of data, in particular Local Environmental Records Centres and voluntary societies.
- Projects to look at developing the use of data.
Each of these work areas was developed under the guidance of steering groups representing all the main interested parties, both within the NBN Trust membership and outside, with the whole Project overseen by a full-time Chief Executive (originally Programme Director) and the NBN Trust Board of Trustees. Since its inception, work on individual projects has been taken on by different partners, with the principal functions originally operating via staff funded through Scottish Natural Heritage, Joint Nature Conservation Committee, Natural England, Biological Records Centre and the NBN Trust.