Nature's Calendar team go data diving with Marks & Spencer

Group of people sat around a table for the Marks & Spencer data scientist volunteers dive into the Nature's Calendar data
Marks & Spencer data scientist volunteers dive into the Nature's Calendar data (Photo: WTML)

Two days, one darkened room, 15 Marks & Spencer data scientist volunteers and 2.6 million Nature’s Calendar records to get stuck into. What nuggets of interest could these experts delve from our records?

What is Nature’s Calendar?

Our dedicated volunteers spend each year recording the natural signs of the seasons such as the first snowdrop of spring or last leaf fall of autumn building on a historic dataset that began in 1754.

What are data dives?

Data dives are organised by the charity DataKind, who bring together charities with expert volunteers that can help them to get new insight into their data. Our data dive was led and hosted by Marks & Spencer - a Woodland Trust corporate partner - along with some of their associated companies.

DataKind

On the day itself each charity gave a short 'Dragon's Den'-style pitch to encourage the volunteer data scientists to join their team: it got quite competitive! Our group then got stuck into the Natures Calendar dataset - and reported back two days later.

What did we want to know?

Working with our scientific partners, we already have a good track record of gaining scientific insights from our Nature's Calendar data, for instance examining how climate change is affecting the timing of different natural events. So the data dive was the chance to try a different approach and look at the motivations and interest of the recorders themselves.

We wanted to know:

  • What inspires people to record spring and autumn signs?
  • Which species have been recorded the most?
  • Are there interesting trends of recording within a single species?

What did we find out?

We ended up with a huge range of different kinds of analyses answering lots of questions. Here is just a glimpse into what we discovered:

Most popular and inspirational species

Wordcloud of obversation pre 2000
Pre 2000 records
Click for full-size

These word clouds show how the recording of different species has changed over time. The larger the word the more the species has been recorded.

Between the years of 1754 and 1999 people were mostly recording through their own initiative. These records shown left in the earlier dated chart are thanks to the efforts of individuals who kept notes about the timing of seasonal events purely for their own interest.

After this date when Nature's Calendar started they were given a list of species to look out for. It is not a total surprise that there are some similarities between the two clouds: one of the reasons certain species were included in the modern list was because they were recorded in the past.

Wordcloud of observation post 2000
Post 2000 records
Click for full-size

You may have spotted that records of trees have increased in the more recent cloud. Could this be because they stay still and are easy to spot? Or perhaps because they can be recorded all year round from budburst to leaf fall?

If you've taken part in BBC Springwatch you’ll be familiar with some of the species in the modern chart: hawthorn, horse chestnut and ladybird have a lot of records because they were on the Springwatch spotters list – so thanks to everyone that joined in!

English oak 2000 to 2015- recording trends

This chart shows the number of records received via Nature's Calendar for pedunculate oak for eight natural ‘events’, such as budburst since the year 2000.

Wordcloud of observation post 2000
Oak species events per year
Click for full-size

The larger circles in 2005, 2006 and 2015 most likely represent years and events where oak was promoted by BBC Springwatch. Interestingly recorders are loyal and numbers for the different events are pretty even across a single year (2010 is a good example of this).

What is worrying is that overall the circle sizes are getting smaller, representing a declining number of records which could reduce their value to science.

In summary

The data dive was an amazing experience and just the start of a new journey for us in exploring our Nature’s Calendar records in a different way. The data dive format is not only a way to get new insight into our data, but it is a valuable knowledge-sharing and collaborative exercise that brings teams and charities closer together.

Thanks to all the efforts of our recorders we have an incredible dataset that enables us to look at changes over time. But we need more! To enable us to keep on going visit the Nature’s Calendar website and send us your records.

More about Marks & Spencer and the Woodland Trust

M&S

Marks & Spencer support us through the Christmas card recycling scheme, by planting a tree for every 1000 Christmas cards brought into their stores for recycling every January. Since 2012, they have planted 32,000 trees across the UK.

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