There are around 900 larger moth species in the UK, so telling them apart can be quite a daunting task, especially for a beginner. However, depending on where you are and what time of year it is, that list is a lot smaller. So I developed the app What’s Flying Tonight to show which species are likely to be flying anywhere in the UK on a given night. Using the GPS in your phone or device, it draws on the data from millions of records gathered through Butterfly Conservation’s National Moth Recording Scheme to work out what you’re likely to see and provide an illustrated guide.
What’s Flying Tonight is a great example of Knowledge Exchange in action because it draws on data that a community has collected and provides them with a useful tool. There’s this great community of people who, for decades, have been putting out moth traps at night and diligently recording what they find. They’re providing valuable information about moth abundance and distribution, so it seems only fair that we give back to them in some way. The tool takes lots of inaccessible moth data, and translates it into useful information for citizen scientists.
Our thinking for this project was how we could make it easier for people to get involved in citizen science projects and help them to provide the most accurate data. By narrowing the focus of what moth species are likely to be in a trap, What’s Flying Tonight lowers the barrier to entry for beginners – so encourages more people to become involved. Users of the app have described it as “invaluable”, helping beginners get into moth recording and even helping experienced recorders to resolve some tricky identification challenges. One person commented “I am an interested observer when it comes to moths, and it made me sound as though I knew what I was talking about in last week’s field course!” So, it’s good to see people are getting so much from it. And as the app helps reduce the risk of misidentification, it also improves the quality of data they submit.
The Biological Records Centre works with over 80 schemes and societies involved with recording wildlife in some way. Engaging with the public through citizen science is such an important part of Knowledge Exchange. Their data underpins much of the work we do in assessing trends in species over time. Without that huge army of volunteers out there collecting all this biodiversity data, we wouldn’t have such a detailed understanding of the state of nature in UK, how it has changed over time, and the likely drivers of change in future.
Citizen science is increasingly being recognised as a valid scientific research method that can produce robust data for answering important scientific questions. Of course, it’s not the correct tool for every project, but there are certainly a large number of situations where this sort of collaboration can benefit both the public and research community. Interestingly, during the spring lockdown, there was a four-fold increase in downloads of What’s Flying Tonight. It seems this increase in participation was something experienced by wildlife citizen-science projects across the board – a growing number of people want to engage.
Public engagement can also start conversations about research. Another project I worked on used detailed mapping data we had of UK farmland to create Minecraft landscapes. We wanted to show how different scenarios – such as more intensive or diverse farming – could impact biodiversity and pollution. While our mapping tool was very technical, this Minecraft version opened it up to a much wider audience. It wasn’t just the kids that were interested either – when we took it to the farming event Cereals, a lot of farmers loved it and it provided a nice stepping-stone to discussions about our research.
Whether it’s public communication or citizen science, engaging people with your research has benefits for everyone: researchers, members of public, and society. As we’ve seen with plastics, when people understand an issue, they care about it. I hope these projects help to connect people with nature and start them on the beginning of a journey to learn more.
Dr Tom August is a Computational Ecologist at the Biological Records Centre (BRC), UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology. His research focuses on bridging the gap between research scientists and information technology experts. Through the development of websites and apps, his work makes existing data sets more accessible to academics, other practitioners and the wider community. What’s Flying Tonight was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) as part of the UK-SCAPE programme delivering National Capability.
New Knowledge Exchange Fellowship call
NERC sees public engagement as a key part of knowledge exchange, and a route to increasing the impact of research. That’s why we’re now encouraging public engagement project applications to this year’s Knowledge Exchange Fellowship call.
For more ideas on how public engagement can deliver impact, check out the NERC Engage blogs.