Matt Davies, Zedonk Consulting
In January 2015, after a decade at GiGL, I resigned my position as Operations Manager to take a much needed sabbatical with my young family. We headed to Mauritius, where I branded beaches with ‘GiGL Rocks!’ footprints using the custom flip-flops given to me as a leaving present. When not recharging, exploring the island, or mapping Pink Pigeon with the Mauritius Wildlife Foundation, I was able to reflect on GiGL’s many accomplishments during my tenure, a few of which I would like to share with you.
I delineate my time at GiGL into two phases; the early, developmental stage, and the fully fledged local environmental record centre stage. When I joined as Information Officer in November 2004, the staff team comprised Mandy as Manager, based in the office, and Lyndsey, as Data Officer, working from home in Somerset. One of my main roles was to deliver data search reports; mostly to consultants to inform planning applications. These reports are a mainstay of any LERC and a right-of-passage for virtually all LERC staff. At the time, requests were received by fax. Reports were then generated, printed, bound and posted to the client. It seems like a bygone era now.
In 2004 the species database contained around three hundred thousand records, compared to over three million now. I made it a priority to improve taxonomic and spatial coverage making the database reflect the reality on the ground. We also set about engaging new data providers, mobilising large amounts of data by supporting the network of Recorder databases and by couriering boxes of survey reports, naturalists’ notebooks and other species lists to Lyns, for her to enter into the database.
By December 2005, the GiGL partnership was growing and, with support from early funders such as the London Boroughs of Redbridge and Wandsworth, the Greater London Authority, London Wildlife Trust, and London Biodiversity Partnership, we were able to employ Lauren Alexander. Lauren took over the running of the data search report service and delivered it with an ever increasing efficiency. The larger staff capacity allowed me to be more strategic, and I set about improving systems of data capture and provision, manipulating and uploading large datasets and developing new products and services.
Coming from a GIS background, I soon realised that whilst Recorder was a good repository for species data, the inbuilt mapping was no match for the capabilities of a full GIS system. Also, I thought that GIS would provide the key to engaging more organisations, allowing the integration of GiGL data into other systems, and enable us to analyse GiGL data alongside other disparate datasets. This led us to commission the development, by Mike Weideli, of the ‘NBNDATA extractor’. A piece of SQL code that distils the data held in hundreds of tables down to the species GIS files that GiGL partners are so familiar with today. With a few improvements, the same code underpins the quarterly data exchange to this day.
Another great leap forward came in 2006 when we partnered with the NBN Trust to deliver a large project which resulted in the development of our original website, with our first interactive data portal, ‘Whats In My BackYard (WIMBY)’. The same project also allowed us to add habitat coverage for about a third of London boroughs, by digitising map data from London survey methodology habitat surveys; and to engage meaningfully with the London Natural History Society by entering hundreds of thousands of their records from several taxonomic groups.
It was at this point that GiGL had become what I regard as a fully-fledged LERC, having over one million species records, near-complete habitat coverage, SINC data and a wide partnership putting the data to good use. The services based on the core datasets were being delivered in increasingly complex, diverse and efficient ways to a growing partnership of organisations.
The staff team then grew again, with Chloë Smith joining us to deliver the Garden Research project. I had recognised that although about 20% of London was private garden, and that although there were anecdotal reports of change in garden composition, little was actually known. By teaming up with London Wildlife Trust and the Greater London Authority we were able to fill that information gap, in a ground-breaking project that would generate unprecedented press coverage.
Through the late 2000s, we recruited Tim Hogg to develop GiGL’s open space data; work subsequently taken up on a grand scale by his successor, Julie Cox; Aldo Tanca to deliver a pilot project integrating biodiversity data into borough planning screening; and Maria Longley to take over the data search service when Lauren left for the People’s Trust for Endangered Species. The core staff team was supported by many volunteers, most significantly by David Allen, who has spent many years mobilising LNHS bird data. We were ably assisted by long-term contractors; Miranda Waugh at Ask Auk for web design and communications, Kate Short at Exegesis for web mapping, and Mike Weideli, Sally Rankin and Andy Foy for data systems.
With such a hugely experienced team, whose ecology knowledge was often as great as their technical and specialist knowledge, we were able to create effective solutions to meet the information needs of the London conservation community as well as engage new audiences, like TfL and London Fire Brigade. For my part, I had been promoted to Operations Manager and my role had changed substantially. I had taken on board line-management responsibilities, technical oversight and business development.
Mandy, the bedrock and mastermind of GiGL, was now CEO of an independent organisation that had flown the LWT nest. It is to her great credit that she created a collaborative and inclusive approach, saw the value in retaining and developing staff, and established an environment in which we could all flourish. Stability truly does bring success.
Over the last few years we have, amongst other things, identified priority locations for The Mayor’s street tree programme, informed the largest infrastructure projects in Europe, mapped habitat suitability, revolutionised the mapping of Deficiency in Access to Nature and created a mapping portal to visualise London’s environment online. Towards the end of my tenure I was invited to present to the National Biodiversity Network annual conference at the Royal Society. It was an ideal opportunity to showcase these and other projects and show just what an LERC can achieve given the right resources. You can watch my presentation here. I was delighted the delegates voted it the best speech.
I have recently returned from the Indian Ocean, refreshed, revitalised and ready to begin a new phase of my career establishing a consultancy. I hope to continue my involvement with GiGL in one way or another, but leave behind a confident, established organisation, staffed by an expert team ready to build on our successes.
I hope you enjoyed the chance to reflect on the development of GiGL as much as I have and can take pride in your own contribution. It was ten years that transformed me into a professional who I hope, in some small way, contributed to conservation in London and to the wider LERC network.
Matt Davies has been an integral part of GiGL for a long time and it was a few strange weeks that followed his departure this year. Many throughout London have benefited from his technical expertise and visionary ideas for the effective use of data for the benefit of wildlife and open spaces in our city. We welcome the review here of his time at GiGL and wish him the very best for the future.