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Not just for nerds: Why data makes a difference

Logo: The Rivers Trust

By Rebecca Duncan, Media & Events Lead

Science and data are at the core of The Rivers Trust’s mission. Our work in passionately advocating for rivers and the communities who care for them is built on foundations of robust, reliable evidence.

This ethos is not just about our team of self-affirmed nerds crunching numbers. It’s also about putting those numbers in the hands of the public so they can understand it and join us in using it to demand better for our waterways. Our best-known campaigns all centre around data – the Sewage Map, the State of Our Rivers Report, and the Big River Watch are just a few examples. Before talking about these data-driven campaigns, let’s share an insight into the work life of one of our Senior Technical Analysts, Dr Josh Jones.

Selfie of Josh inside a tunnel
Josh Jones Senior Technical Analyst (The Rivers Trust)

Josh Jones

Every year around the end of March I’m given a spreadsheet from the Environment Agency and one from Dŵr Cymru Welsh Water. They contain the annual monitoring data on combined storm overflows (CSO) owned and maintained by water and sewage companies. Before we can use these data in our campaigns or our Sewage Map, it needs tidying up. This involves bringing the data into R, the stats programme, where each column is made consistent across water companies and countries before extracting coordinates and adding Rivers Trust specific error flags where the data can’t be fixed. We also add information about which Westminster constituency and local Rivers Trust area a CSO sits in.

Many members of the tech team at The Rivers Trust build and maintain ESRI hub sites (websites) for gathering and managing data on nature-based solutions (NBS). I maintain the Tree Hub, where we collect the location and information on tree planting projects and sites delivered by partners in catchments across England. To collect that data on tree planting activities I built surveys, with lots of design input from colleagues, in ESRI’s Survey123 software. Data entered into these surveys is displayed on interactive maps and summarised in dashboards. My main ongoing task is to keep the surveys up to date so we collect the right data for Defra and it’s as easy as possible for partners to use the surveys.

To help fund the delivery of NBS by corporate partners, I contributed to the development of an online toolbox for estimating the volume of water that can be “replenished” by nature-based solutions. The inner workings of the toolbox are written in the programming language Python. It is uploaded to an Amazon Web Services server where it is accessible through a user-friendly web interface.

What happens when people have data in their hands

A row of bottles with water from different rivers, some murky, some clear.
Water samples demonstrate pollution at the parliamentary launch of the State of Our Rivers Report 2024 (The Rivers Trust)

Josh and his colleagues in our Technical Team are integral to The Rivers Trust’s signature campaigns.

The Sewage Map: issue-based awareness

We published the first version of our Sewage Map back in 2019, when many people were unaware that there is a legal framework for discharging untreated sewage directly into waterways. This was before the Environment Agency was required to publish annual data on sewage spills, so our team worked with the Guardian to put in a Freedom of Information Request.

Fast forward five years, and we have firmly put sewage pollution on the agenda. Our data has been used to support campaigns leading to the first official bathing water designations on England’s rivers and, together with our colleagues in the End Sewage Pollution Coalition, has motivated tens of thousands of people to contact their MPs to demand action. The publication of annual data on discharges is a mainstream news event, which is unfolding as I write this today.

Our work to raise awareness of sewage pollution has yielded results, with requirements to tackle the problem written into the law and various government and water industry plans. We still need to keep our feet to the fire and make sure that happens, but this is incredible progress within just a few years. What’s more, raising awareness of sewage pollution has captured people’s attention so we can further inform them about the many other issues affecting our rivers – more on that later.

Explore the latest sewage pollution data here.

Big River Watch: citizen engagement and empowerment

Two older men holding up signs about the state of our rivers
CEO Mark Lloyd and Philip Dunne, MP for Ludlow, at the State of Our Rivers Report 2024 parliamentary launch (The Rivers Trust)

One of the biggest difficulties for those of us working to improve our water environment is what we call the data gap. The official monitoring of river health in England carried out by the Environment Agency has severely decreased over the last 15 years, coinciding with a drastic reduction in budget. Most river catchments are sampled just a handful of times each year, which is not enough to properly understand such a complex, delicate, and changeable ecosystem as freshwater. That’s why our data team have long advocated for the integration of citizen science with official monitoring data, and have been working with community groups and other partners to make this happen.

Last year, we launched the Big River Watch, an entry-level citizen science survey accessed through a bespoke app. The Big River Watch will put river health data in the hands of communities by inviting them to collect it, and then making the results free and accessible. Data gathered can be used as evidence to support policy change, to better target improvements and even to hold polluters to account.

Being a mass participation citizen science event, the Big River Watch will also help people to connect with their local blue spaces. The first edition of the Big River Watch in September 2023 saw more than 5,000 people submit 3,600 surveys, either individually or in groups. An incredible 60% of participants were new to citizen science, so we’re hoping they all return for the next edition from 3rd-6th May this year. You can delve into the results from September here.

State of Our Rivers Report 2024: data-driven advocacy

The State of Our Rivers Report is a comprehensive deep dive into the health of waterways in the UK and Ireland. With data and evidence at its core, the report shares insights to help understand the issues facing rivers and the actions needed to restore them to good health, a crucial element of a more resilient landscape.

The first edition of the State of Our Rivers Report was published in September 2021 and in February of this year we published a new version using the latest data from the Water Framework Directive. Presented in the interactive map format The Rivers Trust has become renowned for, the report allows users to easily digest information on river health overall, or to drill right down to individual waterbodies.  With striking new graphics, a number of compelling case studies bring the data to life, and we end by inviting readers to call on their local political representative to take action for rivers.

Someone holding a phone next to a river
Big River Watch (The Rivers Trust)

Although the report is an incredible achievement for our Technical team, it makes grim reading for those who care about rivers. Across the UK and Ireland, rivers are in a desperate state with no tangible improvements since the report’s first edition in 2021. Having this information clearly laid out has caught people’s attention, though, and our report has now been cited numerous times in parliamentary debates in Westminster and the Northern Ireland Assembly. That’s a real indication that our advocacy work, driven by data and evidence, is having an impact.

You can read our report and contact your local politician here.

The work goes on

There is so much that goes on behind the scenes in preparing The River’s Trust’s campaigns, and our highly ambitious tech team are continually innovating their approach, putting knowledge in the hands of communities to fight for healthier rivers. You can head to the Data & Evidence section of our website to explore more of their outstanding resources. For more specific enquiries, you can contact data@theriverstrust.org, and of course keep an eye on our social media channels to see what we get up to in the coming months.

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Posted On: 05/04/2024

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