BTO Policy on Data and Information

The principal reason for which the BTO was established was, “for the benefit of the nation, to promote, organise, carry on and encourage study and research and particularly field work for the advancement of knowledge in all branches of the Science of Ornithology.” Data and information are hence of fundamental importance to the BTO.

BTO holds data and information on avian distributions, abundance and demography (and on habitats and other animals) that are of great value for conservation management, site safeguard, species protection, planning advice and a range of issues concerned with environmental policy and ecological science.

In general, BTO aims to make openly available as much of the data and information we hold as possible, whilst recognising that there are sometimes valid reasons (e.g. as discussed by Pearce-Higgins et al. 2018) for adding a level of restriction.

Moreover, as well as the scientific objectives of BTO, for a modern charity the management of business data and information is also of critical importance to maximise efficiency and effectiveness.

This policy sets out BTO’s approach to data and information. It was approved by BTO's board on 30 July 2019.

BTO is subject to the Data Protection Act 2018 (which incorporates the provisions of the EU General Data Protection Regulation – GDPR).

As BTO is not a public authority or statutory agency, it is not directly subject to a number of other regulations such as the Freedom of Information Act 2000, Environmental Information Regulations 2004 or the EU INSPIRE Directive.

However, the work carried out by BTO in partnership with statutory agencies may require a level of indirect compliance with these Acts or Regulations.

Acquisition of data and information

BTO acquires data and information from a wide range of sources:

  • Volunteers: much of the biological data gathered by BTO is critically dependent on the fieldwork of our network of skilled volunteers. Some of this data is collected according to clear protocols that we set out, whereas other data is collected by volunteers in a more self-directed fashion. Many BTO volunteers are also affiliated with the network of county (and other local) bird clubs throughout the United Kingdom, and with the Scottish Ornithologists' Club, the Welsh Ornithological Society and BirdWatch Ireland. Moreover, some of our schemes are run in partnership with other organisations, notably JNCC and RSPB. In all cases we will endeavour to establish a clear understanding of the onwards use the BTO can make of the data.
  • Professional: BTO also acquires some biological data through the work of paid staff. For the most part, BTO is at liberty to use such data as it sees fit.
  • Supporters: our volunteers, members and other supporters provide data (personal data, transactional data, etc.) in their dealings with BTO. Our Privacy Policy clearly sets out how we can use such data.
  • Commercial: in some cases, BTO purchases data or information to integrate with our work, where there is no better cost-free option. In such cases, we will ensure we only use the information for the purposes for which we have permission.
  • Open/shared access: in some cases, BTO will make use of cost-free datasets that other parties have provided access to. In such cases, we will ensure we only use the information for the purposes for which we have permission, and that we acknowledge the data providers accordingly.
  • Business-generated: BTO generates data through its everyday business activities, notably through financial accounts and staff timesheets.

It is important that all BTO’s data is of known quality. This quality is generally high, given the skills of our network combined with the rigorous design of our schemes.

Data quality is checked and improved using a combination of automated techniques, assessment by professional staff, and verification by external recognised experts.

Due to the importance of quality control BTO, where possible and within the requirements of data protection legislation, will endeavour to retain the identity of all original observers generating biological data, in case of future requirements to check the details of any observation.

Given the eventual aim of using and sharing data and information, wherever possible BTO aims to collect data within the scope of widely recognised data standards, to maximise the potential for future interoperability.

Management of data and information

The BTO recognizes that it has a special responsibility to ensure that the datasets that it holds are properly managed and curated. Most of BTO’s data-holdings are electronic, as follows:

  • Individual PCs/laptops/hard-drives. Data held solely on individual machines should not be considered core BTO data as they are not subject to any automated backups. Staff members are discouraged from storing anything locally for longer than temporary use.
  • Networked drives, physically located on servers at BTO offices. These drives are variably accessible to staff through the BTO’s internal network (and remotely through Virtual Private Networks).
  • Master online databases. The majority of BTO’s survey data is held in a large proprietary database management system, whilst the majority of the personal data is held in a separate database (underpinning a customer relationship management system). Live versions of these databases are hosted at an external site, with test versions hosted internally at Thetford.
  • Cloud storage. BTO staff have access to cloud storage for online document sharing. Our project management information is also held in the cloud. BTO continues to investigate the potential for further adoption of cloud computing for a range of other purposes.

Most data that BTO receives on paper are now rapidly entered into our electronic databases. For those (mostly older) records that are not fully computerized, many are held as digital images to protect them from loss.

BTO will continue to seek resources to computerize those remaining historical datasets not available in digital form, and eventually to scan all of its remaining paper records, including its extensive archive of detailed results from mapping censuses.

BTO policies for managing data security, and for preventing data loss, are maintained and implemented in line with developing technology. Access to the BTO’s data-holdings from the outside world is restricted by the use of firewalls, etc. In recognition of the importance of maintaining and demonstrating cyber-security, BTO has achieved Cyber Essentials certification.

Internally, most electronic files are stored on password-restricted personal or group workspaces. Particularly sensitive files may have individual passwords. Our core databases store user passwords in an encrypted manner ensuring further security.

Networked drives have all file changes backed up nightly, and a full backup copy is taken weekly and then stored off-site, although this schedule is under review to ensure a suitable balance between securing valuable information vs. unnecessary levels of backup.

Our core databases are also backed up to the same schedule, with changes backed up nightly and a full copy taken weekly. Moreover, our core databases incorporate internal audit procedures which record any data alterations (enabling roll-back in case of errors).

Dissemination of data and information

BTO’s data holdings provide enormous research potential, which should be exploited for science and conservation. BTO is committed to making data and information readily available to users, and we are committed to disseminating such information as rapidly as possible.

BTO considers itself to have a key public data archiving function for long-term citizen science data, and by doing so acts as a hub between thousands of volunteers contributing those data, and the outside world in terms of interpretation and access to those data.

This means that we can manage the relationship between data providers and re-users to enhance the interpretation of the data, to protect the interests of those volunteers submitting large amounts of data, and to communicate results back to volunteers.

The principal route to accessing such data and information should be directly via BTO, either by making a direct request to datarequests [at], or through our website, where detailed summary information from many of our surveys and projects is accessible (e.g. the Bird Atlas Mapstore, WeBS Report Online, etc.).

In cases where we need to spend additional time processing a bespoke data request, the BTO will normally make a charge to cover our costs, although these may be waived for volunteer contributors and in some other circumstances.

  • Requests to reproduce summarised data outputs (e.g. maps from the Bird Atlas Mapstore) should be directed to permissions [at]

Additionally, the BTO makes a substantial amount of its data and information available through the third-party systems such as the National Biodiversity Network (NBN) Atlas, Defra’s MAGIC website, EuroBirdPortal and the European Union for Bird Ringing (EURING).

Information based on analysed project results will be published in refereed scientific publications, in publications for conservation practitioners and policy makers, and in popular articles and web pages that provide feedback to surveyors, birdwatchers and the general public.

BTO will ensure that summaries of all its scientific publications and reports are freely available over the internet (subject only to any copyright restrictions imposed by publishers or contractual delays). Wherever possible the full text of articles and reports will be made available in the same way.

With respect to BTO’s own journals, all papers in both Bird Study and Ringing & Migration are freely available to download four years after publication (with some being free to view sooner).

When disseminating data and information, we will endeavour to ensure that users are clearly informed about:

  • Any specific interpretative issues, for example BTO undertakes many surveys where appropriate inferences can only be drawn from analyses that take account of the underlying sampling design
  • Any licensing restrictions; for example, some data and information might only be freely available for non-commercial users.
  • The acknowledgements that should be given alongside any use of the data (to our volunteers and partners in particular, in addition to acknowledging BTO itself).
  • Any requirements for reporting and feedback; the BTO is always interested in hearing how our data and information products are being used, and increasingly intend to develop and publish metrics to measure this.

Whilst BTO strives to make as much of our data and information as open as possible, some of the data we hold has been collected as part of particular professional or amateur studies.

Under these circumstances it may be the intention of those who collected the data to analyse and publish the results of their own studies themselves, even though they may be happy for them to also be treated as part of the national dataset.

Under these circumstances we will take steps to ensure that the legitimate rights of the contributors are appropriately protected and that their data are not released to third parties without their agreement.

BTO holds many records containing the locations of rare and sensitive species, and will always aim to ensure that adequate confidentiality of such data is maintained, so that they are not released in ways that could jeopardize individual birds or sites.

Conversely, there are occasions where appropriate individuals do need access to such information in order to ensure that species and/or sites are adequately protected. We will continue to apply our experience and professional judgement, in consultation with the Rare Breeding Birds Panel and other statutory and voluntary conservation organisations, to reach an optimal balance between confidentiality and dissemination.


BTO considers the management of data and information as crucial to achieving our vision of “a world where people are inspired by birds and informed by science”. We aim both to secure our data and information holdings for the future, and to mobilise them for the present.

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