How should you assess the environmental sensitivity of the data that you hold?

Environmentally sensitive information is any which, if released to the public, would result in an ‘adverse effect’ on a feature of the environment.

In a small number of cases, public access to biodiversity data can result in environmental harm.  For example, releasing detail of the nesting locations of rare birds of prey to the public domain. It is important that any environmentally sensitive data that you hold are identified and their availability managed responsibly.

It is important to remember that the objective is to assess the sensitivity of the data and not the sensitivity of environmental features alone.  It is not advisable to assume that data is sensitive simply because the species it relates to has been identified as rare or threatened within a BAP or red-list.

For example, a pond that is important for Great Crested Newts could be deemed sensitive to damage from development, but sharing data relating to the site with the public may not result in harm occurring.  In fact making this information more widely available is likely to reduce the risk of accidental damage.

The NBN Secretariat has developed a useful criteria-driven approach to help data holders structure their assessment of environmental sensitivity of data. This good practice framework facilitates more transparent decisions for which a case for sensitivity can be assessed, documented and readily understood by others.

The criteria are structured around three core elements of sensitivity;

  • evidence of harm occurring, its type and the level of threat,
  • vulnerability of the feature to the harmful activity,
  • impact that releasing data you hold would have.

The criteria based approach has proved very successful. It has been adopted by public authorities operating in the biodiversity sector to help structure their decisions under the Environmental Information Regulations.  You can find out more about the Environmental Information Regulations where you will find helpful information. Criteria from the ICO have been adopted on an international scale and form the basis of the Global Biodiversity Information Facility’s Guide to best practice for generalising sensitive species data.