The Dataset’s Dream

In a winter-dark Twickenham wood, the UK’s butterfly and moth database is having its first dream…

What is gained, and what is lost, when an observation of wildlife becomes a digitised record? I spoke to Michael Pocock and Tom August, lead scientists on the DECIDE project, to find out more about The Dataset’s Dream and what it means to them. 

A winter-dark wood and part of the Dataset’s Dream (Photographer: Ewelina Ruminska)

What is The Dataset’s Dream?

MP: It is the response of artists (Bryony Benge-Abbott and Thomas Sharp) to the DECIDE project, which supported people in “recording nature where it matters”. So, we have a poetic fable, written by Thomas Sharp, about the dream of the UK’s butterfly and moth dataset. In it, the dataset reflects on all the records it contains, what the observations meant to the people making the record, and what they mean to scientists who will use them for research. Bryony Benge-Abbott, who led the project, has created beautiful illuminated “cocoon-caskets”. People will be able to listen to a reading of the fable while meandering through a twilight wood and discovering the illuminated caskets.

TA: The artists gathered inspiration for their work through individual conversations with many of the DECIDE project team. For us, it has been an exciting and different approach to our more traditional public engagement, allowing us to share our science in a different way.

Creating a “cocoon-casket” (Photographer: Ewelina Ruminska)

What will The Dataset’s Dream bring to biological recording?

MP: In the DECIDE project we are using 18 million records of butterflies and moths submitted by about 117,000 volunteers over the past 20 years to model the distribution of over 800 butterfly and moth species. These records are extremely important, influencing scientific outputs and thus influencing decision-making. However, in being turned into a digital record, the observation is stripped of its emotional and sensory context: that of an individual person observing an individual insect in a particular place. 

TA: With The Dataset’s Dream, we are exploring some of the other, less objective or scientific, ways of ‘knowing’ nature, and the roles of scientists, datasets, and naturalists in this. It will hopefully inspire people to know nature better, in ways that are rewarding to them.

Who is it for?

TA: The Dataset’s Dream is for the curious.

MP: We’re living in an increasingly digital world, where there is disconnection with nature, and yet the evidence shows how important is for our wellbeing. We hope that this installation will inspire people’s curiosity with nature, with science and with data, whether they have done any wildlife recording yet or not.

What have you, as a scientist, gained from being involved in the project?

TA: It’s been a great opportunity to get a new perspective on the work that we do. Often, we focus so much on the data we can lose touch with the nature it represents. This work explores this journey of nature becoming digital and what is gained and lost along the way.

MP: In The Dataset’s Dream, the dataset speaks to scientists about both the value of their role and their limitations. Bryony and Thomas have given The Dataset a personality and a voice, which has made me think about data and my role as a scientist in a different way. I can’t wait to hear from members of the public who visit and engage with the installation about how it has influenced them.

What do you hope the audience will get out of it?

TA: I hope the audience enjoy the beauty of the installation, the painting and the poetry. People who dig a little deeper in to the words of the poem will be encouraged to think more about what happens when nature becomes digital, and I hope will see the value of that alongside the more emotional connections to nature.

Can The Dataset’s Dream help nature conservation?

MP: Ultimately the DECIDE project is about getting the best data for conservation and decision-making – getting more records from the places where we most need them. But while good decision-making relies on good data, it also relies on the attitude of care for all those involved. Here, through the art, we hope people will reflect on the importance of data for nature and of care for nature. 

What do scientists dream of?

MP: In my work I dream of loss and hope. The Dataset’s Dream talks about the sadness of scientists and their “loss and impotence and sorrow”. That confronted me with the challenge of being an ecologist in the time of biodiversity crisis when much of my job is documenting loss. But equally I cannot do my work without hope that in some way, however small, I can contribute to a world that, in the future, is better for nature (and so better for people too).

If a scientist could give the Dataset one piece of advice, what would it be?

TA: “What you see is not the truth”

If The Dataset could tell scientists one thing, what might it be? 

TA: A question for the Poet I think, but taking a line from the fable:

“The world is a tangle. It is a briar bush of the measurable, the data, and its poetic weight.”

What’s next for The Dataset’s Dream?

MP & TA: We have great dreams for The Dataset’s Dream and would like to take it on tour to a wide range of settings. We’ve already taken one of the caskets to the supercomputer data facility where our analyses have been carried out. It felt quite profound to see an artistic response to our work, gently glowing, surrounded by banks of computers with flashing lights and the drone of air conditioning.  

Bryony, Michael and Tom take one of the caskets to the JASMIN server room (Photographer: Ewelina Ruminska)

In December it will be exhibited in a woodland in London where everyone is welcome to experience it.  We would love to work more with Bryony and Thomas on this topic next year. It would be great to see the exhibit find new audiences around the UK. Where else should people experience The Dataset’s Dream?  

Experience The Dataset’s Dream in the grounds of Orleans House Gallery, Twickenham on December 2-4 from 3.30-6.30pm. FREE. For more details, and to book tickets, visit: The Dataset’s Dream

(Photographer: Ewelina Ruminska)

For more information:

The dataset’s dream: UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology

The DECIDE Project: Bryony Benge-Abbott


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