Transitioning to Digital Online Flora

Lotus corniculatus, Common Bird’s-foot-trefoil in calcareous grassland. © Karen Andrews

The Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland (BSBI) held its Annual Meeting at the Natural History Museum in London on 23 November 2019. The event is a great opportunity for botanists to get together, hear presentations, view posters, resolve identification issues and simply have a good chat with fellow plant enthusiasts. The AGM revealed a successful year for the society with a increase of some 500 members attributed to online activities including the popular #wildflowerhour on Twitter. The renowned botanist, Clive Stace gave the final presentation of the day entitled New Flora of the British Isles – Before and After.

Stace’s Presentation

Clive Stace’s New Flora of the British Isles seems to constantly reside on my desk, rarely returning to its place on the bookshelf. His BSBI presentation gave insights into his thinking on flora past, present and future. He stressed the importance of consulting past literature, observation and experimentation. He also told us to be critical of everything we read or are told. He revealed the gaps that he sought to fill in his flora against his predecessors’ work.


Thinking ahead to BSBI’s 2020 Atlas, Stace challenged us to move beyond recording dots on a map and taking photographs. This tapped into my own recent thinking that botanists need to improve the demonstration of how other species depend on plants and how species are interdependent. Climate change and biodiversity threats urgently require new ways of thinking, greater data accessibility and time-critical communication. Progress will very much build on Stace’s excellent flora foundations, just as his own grew out of the work of his predecessors:

Historically Important British Floras

SMITH, J.E. & SOWERBY, J. (3) English Botany 1790-1886 (1892)

BABINGTON, C.C. (10) Manual of British Botany (Syme) 1843-1922 (Wilmott)

BENTHAM, G, & HOOKER, J.D. (8) Handbook of the British Flora 1858-1924 (Rendle)

HOOKER, J.D. (3) The Student’s Flora of the British Islands 1870-1884

CLAPHAM, A.R., TUTIN, T.G. & WARBURG. E.F. (3) Flora of the British Isles 1952-1987

Digital Transition

Stace talked us through the production changes since his first edition. He threw down the gauntlet that the next British flora should be electronic, referring to an initiative in the Netherlands. I wondered how well this might work, given my own experiences with multilingual and multicultural design and publications.

Template Design

I recall how the Ellenberg indicators and European classifications do not always sit well in the UK. There are always regional exceptions that are not easily accommodated within a predesigned template. Despite thorough advance planning and template testing, issues always appear unexpectedly part-way through a project. If you build flexibility into your design from the outset, expensive redesigns can be avoided and tweaks accommodated. Using another country’s template without initial involvement could be fraught with problems.

DNA Unknowns

Transferring a book format to an online format is always a mistake. A major rethink is necessary about the first electronic steps and desired developments for a future stage. For example, we know that DNA research is going to change plant names, genera and families. Adding, lumping, splitting and reassigning genera and species have the potential to break an online system. How will the unknown be managed?


It is essential to build a flexible template and then test it with different scenarios. Digital transition turns into an expensive nightmare otherwise. You also need time to run tests with both experienced, intermediate and novice botanists. Online records will also invite in external users without botanical experience. User-friendliness is crucial given the increasing importance of biodiversity data.

Content Sign-off

How will updates be managed? Once data is online, users automatically expect a greater frequency of updates and corrections. Who will decide on the right level of detail to put online? Who will have the overriding authority to sign off and release changes? Budgets overrun if there are too many cooks. Many fantastic electronic systems also stall after initial financing and set-up because the budget runs out.

Print Version Too?

If BSBI members want to keep a book version of the electronic content, how and when will the cut-off be managed? How will the electronic format transfer to print? What information will we leave out? Inevitably, electronic files end up bigger with more linking information. The trouble with links is that they break. They need to be checked frequently and updated. What happens if a software update makes past content inaccessible? How will changes be tracked? How will cybersecurity, storage, back-ups and disaster recovery be managed?


Many database systems crash frequently and run too slowly because the developers have not anticipated the future volume of interactions. The right technical partner and advice is critical. Will the system respond to people accessing it from different devices (PCs, iPads and smartphones) and include overseas access? It is also important to keep thorough records of any illustration, video and photography copyrights from the outset.

New Generation of Digital Botanists

At the prospect of so many potential issues, it may feel easier to throw in the towel and stick to print. However, the next generation is highly computer literate and expect comprehensive, reliable and colourful online records.

Interactive Keys

Stace had a few issues with the clicker during his presentation. This demonstrated both the ease and the glitches of online links. Tomorrow’s botanists will expect interactive keys. The advantage of an online key is that we can retrace our steps more easily (as long as the feature has been built in). A multi-access key wins when you want to identify a species in different seasons. We can come to a complete dead end with a printed key.


When we are out in the field with dodgy connections and a low battery, thumbing through a good, old printed key wins every time. It is important to think upfront about how and when different users will interact with the flora.

Legacy and Future

The BSBI’s rising membership is due to its increased online presence. This proves that online digital flora is the right future path. There will inevitably be teething problems. Clive Stace issued a timely challenge on the vital next step in British flora. His 4-edition legacy is the next generation’s digital foundation.

© Karen Andrews

References and Further Reading

Copyright Note

Karen does not seek or receive any commercial interest or advantage from this blog. She is not promoting any business venture. She simply loves to share fascinating facts about plants. These pages illustrate her love of plants, botany, biodiversity, gardens and creative expression. There is always so much to learn about plant diversity. This blog is designed as a showcase for photography, commentary on plants and wildlife, gardens and other places visited, horticulture and related topics. Viewpoints are her own, not those of her employer.

© Karen Andrews 2018 onwards. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Karen Andrews and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

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