Embarrassment and Pride

It is with mixed feelings that I read the DEFRA celebration of reaching 95% favourable or recovering condition across its series of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs).

I feel embarrassment that I helped introduce a single nationally applied target to a previously unfathomably uncertain system, and pride, as that at least it has delivered positive outcomes and given Environmental Organisations greater authority…

Back in 1987, as an enthusiastic systems analyst, I joined the Nature Conservancy Council HQ at Peterborough, primarily to design and build systems that would manage and maintain information about the UK’s suite of SSSIs.

As part of an amazing ever changing group of IT and conservation staff (you know who you are) we took the task head on.

The context of my approach over the years it took to complete (then, I hasten to add) was based on:

  • A strict adherence to SSADM
  • Object orientation
  • Business process re-engineering

In short this meant applying order to the most unordered of the unordered.

Conservation management at the time was all about local appropriateness, vast experience and the scientific biases of local management. This meant that there were different approaches and views in the same office never mind across the country.

What we then did was look for a common denominator, the smallest undividable piece of:

  • interest feature ie habitat
  • tenure or ownership
  • legislative boundary ie county

and we called this a unit.

We then picked up on some new thinking in Wales (Thanks Terry Rowell) on condition monitoring which recommended assessing a unit across its entirety and categorising it between unfavourable and favourable. In other words, summarising all the vast knowledge of a conservation officer over a half day visit into a single decision.

In hindsight I could justify this as creating a vast digital landscape allowing anticipatory awareness of where hotspots of good practice or damaging activities so that action could be taken quickly.

What was however a genuine shock was that once the system was in place, how the ability to summarise condition across site, team, county and nation quickly turned it into the single most important measurement for English Nature. It was a bit like seeing a spine emerging in a jellyfish.

Perhaps my greatest regret is that I purposefully turned my back on Info Systems and targets to concentrate on storytelling in communities, and despite Dave Snowden’s constant support and sponsorship, I didn’t implement a narrative version of the system capturing the real thoughts/motivations/knowledge of local conservation staff, wildlife trusts, land owners and volunteers which would undoubtedly have created a world beating conservation resource which might have made up to the minute sense of climate change and lessened the current target chasing approach we now see today.

But Hey, lets all celebrate that we still have SSSIs in 2011…


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