A thought-provoking collaboration between scientists at the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH), an artist and a poet explores what is gained and lost when an observation of wildlife becomes a digitised record

The new installation has been inspired by the DECIDE project, led by UKCEH, which is using 18 million records of butterflies and moths submitted by about 117,000 volunteers over the past 20 years to model the distribution of more than 800 butterfly and moth species across the UK.

The Dataset’s Dream, which will be exhibited in woodland in South West London from 2-4 December, comprises illuminated, painted glass cocoon-caskets by artist Bryony Benge-Abbott inspired by a journey into the interactions of data with nature. 

As visitors meander through the woodland, discovering the illuminated caskets, they will listen to an audio recording of a poem, written by Thomas Sharp from the perspective of the butterfly and moth dataset having its first dream. In it, the dataset reflects on all the records it contains, what happens when we turn nature into digital data and what the real-world impact of absences within the data might be. 

UKCEH computational ecologist Dr Tom August, a member of the DECIDE project team who worked with the poet and artist on the installation, explains: “It’s been a great opportunity to get a new perspective on the research that we do. Often, we focus so much on the data, we can lose touch with the nature it represents.” 

He adds: “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.”

UKCEH ecologist Dr Michael Pocock, principal investigator of DECIDE, which is funded by the Natural Environmental Research Council, says: “We’re living in an increasingly digital world, where there is disconnection with nature, and yet the evidence shows how important nature 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.”

The Dataset’s Dream will be staged in the grounds of Orleans House Gallery, Twickenham, from December 2-4 from 3.30-6.30pm. Tickets are free, booked in advance via Eventbrite.

An interview with Dr Pocock and Dr August about the new installation is published on the DECIDE website.