We've noticed a number of criticisms of our news service over the last week or so in various places. Whilst we admit we do not get it right all of the time, we are always happy to hear from someone if we've made a mistake or published something that we should not have done.
Some of the criticisms are answered below.
"There do not appear to be many reports on the BirdGuides news service"
We can only publish information that we know about! During quiet periods (such as recently) then if there are not the birds around there will often be periods where our news page is not updated every few minutes. You can be assured that we are not missing out important bird news as when we know about it then it is immediately broadcast on our news services. During quiet periods we tend to avoid 'padding out' our news service with reports of common species as this tends to make it harder for people to pick out the more useful and interesting information.
"A bird was seen near me at 10:25 but BirdGuides only put out news at 15:30"
This is not because we neglected to put out a report for 5 hours, but we can only put out information when it is submitted to us. For whatever reason, people do not always supply information straight away and may only be able to do so later in the day when they have time to do so, access to a phone/email, etc. In this particular case, although the observer did see the bird in question at 10:25 they did not inform us until 15:30, which was when we put the news out. We aim to gather and disseminate information as quickly as possible.
"I've not received some reports on Bird Text Alert that I should have"
Often criticisms such as this turn out to refer to reports that the user has not asked to receive. For example, if they've asked not to receive 'Untwitchable' sightings they wouldn't get a report that said 'seen yesterday' and if they've asked for 'Scarce and rarer birds' they wouldn't get to hear of a Little Tern on their local reservoir, since Little Tern is categorised as 'Local'.
For other possible reasons why you might not receive a message you were expecting, see:
We've tried to make it possible for every Bird Text Alert subscriber to get only the reports they really want, but that does involve them checking whether they are asking to receive the right information from us. It's also not always possible to reflect everybody's slightly different requirements, though we feel the service is more flexible than any of its rivals. There's lots of advice on settings in the FAQs.
"The Bird Text Alert service is not as quick as a pager"
This is sometimes true, but it is a fraction of the cost of a pager. If those extra few minutes are that crucial then perhaps BTA is not for you, but a pager is. However, most people who use BTA find it perfectly satisfactory for their needs, as a cost-effective alternative to a pager. The news is sent out as quickly as possible from us, but delays in the message reaching your mobile phone may occur which are beyond our control. There are several reasons why there may be a delay and these are covered at:
"I've received too much information on Bird Text Alert and am using my messages too quickly"
The thinking behind BTA is to make it as flexible as possible so that users can receive as much or as little information as they like. There are options to opt out of certain types of reports, or to include requests for specific species or to just receive news in certain areas. If you receive too much information then it may be worth checking the FAQ to see whether there are changes you can make to your settings that will make the service better suited to your needs:http://www.birdguides.com/bta/faq.asp#reduce
"BirdGuides put out news of rare breeding birds"
Like all information services we liaise with the RSPB at the beginning of each breeding season and place a number of 'warnings' for our news team not to use certain species in certain areas. The rare breeding bird situation changes frequently throughout the summer and we try to only put out news of rare breeders that is given the OK by the RSPB. Our general policy is not to publish sightings of potential breeders so we don't publish any sightings of Marsh Warbler (apart from obvious migrants), for example, but we don't always know if a report of, say, a Black-necked Grebe or Marsh Harrier is of a passing bird or likely breeder, and as a result we may inadvertently publish news of something that local birders would prefer to be kept confidential. If this happens we're always happy to be 'put right' - we can then stop reporting a particular bird and remove previous reports from our archive. We do try to be careful about potential breeders, but if ever we're not cautious enough, please tell us and we'll rectify it.
"BirdGuides copy their news from other services"
In the bird news market all providers copy their news from each other. We are fortunate that, because some of the birders who run the regional Birdlines are also part of the BirdGuides news team, many of the rarest birds in the country are reported through BirdGuides before they reach other national services. We also benefit from the fact that more birders subscribe to BirdGuides than to any other service so we have a considerable pool of contributors. However, every other professional news service also has sources that generate their own news so we do all we can to ensure that such news is added to our own system as quickly as possible, once it has been published elsewhere.
"We shouldn't have to pay for bird news – we should get it free from mailing lists"
There are many excellent local mailing lists that provide a free news service. If you only need news from the areas that they cover, and you don't mind that it isn't necessarily comprehensive, up-to-the-minute, or vetted by experienced birders, and you don't need to access a sophisticated archive of past sightings and photos, then a local newsgroup might be all you need. However, at BirdGuides we invest a lot of time and effort gathering news from our own subscribers as well as other bird news services and all the free newsgroups and websites. From this we provide a national service with all this news in one place all day, every day of the year, accessible in various ways. This is why we have to make our news service subscription-only (though we do provide a free page) because we have staffing, technical and service costs to cover; so much so that our bird news services do not make a profit and are subsidised through other parts of BirdGuides. Every other national news service has to charge for the time they put in and the technology they need. We like to think that BirdGuides provides the best value of all those professional services.
In light of the above criticisms we are considering some of the issues raised and will seek to establish what we might be able to do better. However, we hope it's not over-defensive to say that given the hundreds of reports we deal with every day, and the limitations of some of the technology (and, dare we say it, the vagaries of our contributors) a 100% perfect system is not a realistic aim.
We'd encourage people with specific problems or complaints to contact our webmaster Dave Dunford by email at firstname.lastname@example.org in the first instance; it may be that tweaks to people's settings, or a fuller understanding of some of the subtleties and limitations of our services, might resolve the problem.
We are not denying mistakes are made — to err is human — and we hope this article is not taken as complacency. We do take criticisms seriously and these comments have prompted much discussion in the BirdGuides office which will hopefully lead to improvements in future.