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SAS® helps the British Trust for Ornithology gain new insights to inform wildlife conservation

SAS® Analytics is helping a world-class scientific research organisation to make sense of masses of wildlife data, engage with an army of essential volunteers and gain new insights to support more informed conservation, policy making and targeting of resources.

Founded in 1933, the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) is one of the world's leading impartial scientific research organisations specialising in birds. Focusing on the design and implementation of volunteer wild bird surveys, the Trust's partnership between 30,000 volunteers and a small team of 100 scientists is a powerful and cost-effective way to monitor birds. "Our work makes a vital contribution to conservation, helping campaigners and decision makers set priorities and target resources," says Karen Wright, Joint Head of Information Systems. SAS has supported the BTO for over 20 years and with the results it helps to provide having a real impact in areas ranging from nature conservation and land management to government policymaking.

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"SAS® is commonly used in universities, is internationally renowned and robust," Wright says. "The support we receive from SAS is also very good." Flexibility is equally important. "We use SAS in various ways," says Dr Iain Downie, Joint Head of Information Systems. This ranges from individual scientists at desktops developing bespoke analytical methods "that are highly effective, interactive and friendly–a lot of this work is cutting edge—to handling large data volumes in the background and running tens of thousands of bootstraps." SAS also supports a key on-line survey, dynamically publishing updated web pages and graphics that reflect volunteer observations from the previous 24 hours.

Data volumes take flight 

The BTO holds very large volumes of wildlife data, including over 100 million records of mainly bird species and long-term data sets reaching back 50 years. An important area benefiting from SAS is the production of the Wider Countryside Report, distributed to conservation agencies, which shows population levels year-by-year for around 120 species. "The results are of prime importance in developing environmental policies," Wright says. "To produce them, we need powerful and fast software that can cope with extremely large data sets." Data comes from multiple sources: for example, the wetland birds survey and nest records data. "SAS meets our requirements in terms of the 'heavyweight' analysis involved, while we also have to work to deadlines," Wright says. "SAS' capabilities mean we can create a single program to process population trends for over 80 individual species, at the UK national level, and for over 40 years' worth of data. We work hard to get data in from contributors, and SAS then enables the Trust to get them analysed and written-up as efficiently as possible." Built-in capabilities provide the trend information required, Wright says, delivering power and simplicity to manipulate different datasets to produce a single file. Cross-platform support by SAS enables the BTO to develop and test programs in Windows then deploy them to a batch environment "for the repetitive but essential task of generating statistical bootstraps for species population trends. For common birds, a single bootstrap can take over 30 minutes, so it's essential we can leave these programs running unattended for months. SAS is so robust, giving us that ability." Reports include traffic lighting to indicate when a species is falling into a serious decline, placing it on a 'red alert' list.

SAS is also used in more focused ways. For example, a senior research ecologist in the Population and Modelling Team uses SAS on a daily basis to design surveys and analyse data in novel ways. Recent work has included determining reasons for the national decline of the cuckoo, and a project that involves looking at patterns of wildfowl movement to optimise the targeting of surveillance for bird flu—work that could have serious economic implications.

Web pages on the fly

SAS also supports BirdTrack (, a major project that sees the BTO partnering with the RSPB, BirdWatch Ireland and Scottish Ornithologists' Club. An online survey covering migration movements and distributions of birds, volunteer birdwatchers enter details of the birds they spot on a daily basis. "Each day, 5,000 sightings entered on-line are added to our national database, which is Oracle-based," says Iain Downie. Overnight, an automated system runs sophisticated SAS routines that transform raw data on over 200 species into attractive graphs, maps and summary statistics, on web pages constantly available to the public. Such an approach is gratifying and highly motivational for the army of volunteers the BTO depends on, quickly showing how their personal sightings fit in to the overall picture. "The public is very interested in our analyses, driven by SAS, like the regional breakdowns to make information more local, national distribution maps, and 'animated' maps showing arrival and departure of common migrant species like the swift," says Downie. 4,500 web pages are generated every night of the year. "SAS is fantastic for doing all this. We have the power and speed to produce this volume of daily updates better than any other system I've come across. So SAS is a vital part of one of the biggest partner projects we've conducted to date. And volunteers love it. Using SAS really encourages volunteer engagement, something we depend upon.

"Our scientists are under pressure to get results fast but they also want to apply new methods, models and techniques, to ensure they get the right results. SAS means we can do that. Our licensing agreement gives everyone access, so they can work as teams, using SAS in a fast, efficient and standardised way. SAS makes life so much easier for our scientists." A charitable trust, the BTO has special terms for its SAS usage. "We couldn't pay the full list price, and are very grateful for that support," says Karen Wright. "SAS is a great tool for our analysts. It's an important, well-regarded solution, and is strong, robust and fully tested. The conservation benefits of our work are very important, and SAS has a direct impact on that. Like everyone else today, we have to make sure we're working as efficiently and effectively as we can. For us, that means not only working hard to continue gathering data and engaging with volunteers, but also analysing that data and providing meaningful results quickly."

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British Trust for Ornithology

Business Issue:
Access and process large volumes of data covering multiple wildlife species; perform a wide range of standard and ad hoc analyses and support highly experienced scientists in delivering accurate data for scientific purposes, nature conservation and government policy making.
The SAS® Analytics platform delivering a wide range of capabilities, including 'heavyweight' data processing and analytics, enabling the development of bespoke analyses, and utilising on-line survey data to dynamically publish web pages that incorporate the latest field observations from the previous 24 hours.
Enabling scientists to use their expertise and work as productively and flexibly as possible; delivering robust and accurate insights with expediency and have a direct impact on environmental and conservation work and government policy while better engaging with and motivating 30,000+ volunteer data collectors.

SAS is a vital part of one of the biggest partner projects we've conducted. Using SAS really encourages volunteer engagement, something we depend upon.

Dr Iain Downie

Joint Head of IS, British Trust for Ornithology

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