The NBN Data Exchange Principles and their rationale

An early step in the development of the National Biodiversity Network was the production of its Data Exchange Principles. Why were these principles an important step?

The NBN is a partnership which needs all those taking part to do so on an equal footing. This is important for a number of reasons.

Mutual trust has always been at the heart of the exchange of wildlife information between individuals and organisations, which have shared data in the past. Now that data can be shared between any number of people and organisations through the Internet, it becomes even more important that mutual trust can be maintained. The NBN Data Exchange Principles were produced as an attempt to lay ground rules for taking part in the Network.

The seven NBN Data Exchange Principles

Principle 1

Biodiversity data should be easily accessible to enable their use for not-for-profit decision-making, education, research and other public-benefit purposes.

These ground rules start from a basic premise: that all wildlife data, regardless of who collected them, ought to be freely available for public benefit uses (including conservation policy-making and action, research, education and public enjoyment). This is the basis of Principle 1, and stems from the long tradition in the UK of free access to wildlife information mentioned above.

Principle 2

Making biodiversity data available should reduce the risk of damage to the environment. If it is likely to have the opposite effect, availability may need to be controlled.

Anyone involved in wildlife conservation will be aware that, unfortunately, some information needs to be carefully handled to minimise damage to the environment. Experience shows that this is usually a limited problem – rare breeding birds whose eggs might be stolen or rare plants that could be dug up, for example. As a result, full access to this kind of data might need to be more strictly controlled. This forms the reasoning behind Principle 2, which acts as a caveat on Principle 1.

Principle 3

Biodiversity data suppliers should make available sufficient meta-data to allow biodiversity data users to assess the scope and potential uses of their information holdings. When biodiversity data are supplied, accompanying information (meta-data) on its ownership, methods and scale of collection and limitations of interpretation, should be provided.

Principle 3 is aimed at trying to make sure those who are using information are aware of, firstly, where it comes from, and secondly, what it can be used for. The suitability of information being provided is often a potential concern for users of data, and this Principle is designed to help users determine whether the information is acceptable for what they need. The Principle is also designed to help the suppliers of information, who may want to ensure that their work is properly recognised by users. How “metadata” are compiled and used is dealt with in the Data guidebook.

Principle 4

A clear transfer of authority should be made when a biodiversity data resource is put together, to allow biodiversity managers to act on behalf of the biodiversity data owners.

Principle 4 stems from the need to ensure that people’s legal rights over records are respected. All wildlife records have associated intellectual property rights and copyright law protects their duplication and use. Transmission of data through the Internet, and their potential use for commercial or official purposes, means that these rights need to be respected when data are passed from suppliers to users. This Principle therefore aims to reduce potential problems when data are made available, so that those supplying and those managing data on other people’s behalf can do so confidently. The questions of legal rights over data and managing permission to copy and use them are dealt with in The Data guidebook.

Principle 5

Managers of biodiversity data should make their framework of terms and conditions publicly-available, allowing biodiversity data owners to  have confidence that control will be exercised in the management and use of their data.

Principle 5 aims to encourage trust and transparency between those who have supplied records and those who might be managing data. Over the years, biological recording in the UK has developed, so that increasingly the management of datasets has been taken on by professionals or dedicated staff in records centres and societies. The advent of the NBN has focused attention on the work needed to carry out this task. The result is an increasing professionalism in the way data are managed. Principle 5 seeks to recognise and encourage this, so that data users and suppliers alike know the basis upon which data are being made available, and any constraints which might have been put on their use by their suppliers.

Principle 6

Personal data must be managed in accordance with the principles of the Data Protection Act 1998 and/or any subsequent legal provisions.

Six is mainly to emphasise the need to comply with the Data Protection Act, but it also serves to clarify what has been a grey area in the use of wildlife information. Although it has always been accepted practice to associate specific records with their originator, and is often essential for those managing data as a means of judging the accuracy of data, the use of data more widely on the internet comes with other implications, and the use of information about people needs to be more carefully handled. Guidance on this issue can be found in the Data guidebook

Freely available data through the Network is an ideal, but the organisations that set up the NBN are aware that a key underlying issue is the need to support the complex of informal networks and organisations that create and supply wildlife records. The reason for setting up the NBN in the first place was that there were not enough resources for the multitude of organisations involved to supply information themselves.

Principle 7

a) Managers and funders of biodiversity data should make basic fact freely available (except for handling charges if needed) for not-for-profit decision-making, education, research and other public-benefit purposes.

b) Biodiversity data suppliers should try to arrange resourcing of information provision so that charges for not-for-profit uses are minimal and charges for commercial uses are realistic but do not prevent the use of biodiversity data.

c) Biodiversity data users should expect to contribute to sustaining the provision of biodiversity data through contributing either in kind or financially to the collection, collation and management of biodiversity data, or at the point of use.

This principle was included to recognise this problem and point to solutions. It was split into three, because the problem concerns those who supply records, those who use records and those who manage them. The Principle also aims to encourage suppliers and managers of data to address the way they organise their funding, if possible, so that the necessary support for recording and data management is properly accounted for. The ultimate aim is to secure funding either through long-term service agreements, or through minimum levels of charging, so that the use of data by those that need them is not unduly curtailed. This Principle therefore aims to build on the basis of the Environmental Information Regulations, which concern information held by public authorities, while at the same time recognising the need of private organisations to secure funding.


The Data Exchange Principles were produced not just as a theoretical guide, but as a practical tool which can be used to underpin the whole way participants in the NBN and others work.

Firstly, they set the ground rules by which a participating organisation intends to operate. The public-benefit use of wildlife information needs to be taken as a given by those who fund participating organisations. Secondly, participants that adhere to these Principles declare the basis on which they will supply their data, including their position on sensitive data, intellectual property rights, and personal information. Thirdly, by adopting these Principles as a basis for their work, participating organisations lay the groundwork for a transparent mode of operation, and for the adoption of sound data management practices.

The NBN Trust has therefore recommended that the Data Exchange Principles should be implemented in the following ways:

  1. Formal adoption as the basis of a participating organisation’s own published Data Access Policies, including policies on charging.
  2. Use in the process of negotiating service agreements by organisations which seek funding from outside bodies, and in particular from public authorities.
  3. Use as a basis for implementing internal working practices, such as procedures for ensuring permissions to use information are granted by suppliers of records, or procedures to document the way that data are managed in an organisation (see also the data exchange licence agreements on this site).

The Data Exchange Principles are also used by the NBN Trust itself as a policy basis for operating the Network and for securing funding.

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