Allowing everyone to easily evaluate and understand environmental assets and impacts when making development planning decisions

Challenge

The environment has become a critical consideration in planning for new development in Ireland. Whether organisations are drawing up layouts for new housing estates, planning new road infrastructure or evaluating sites for renewable energy, they must take into account potential impacts on factors such as natural habitats, water quality, soil degradation and air quality.

Recognising the challenges involved in preparing Strategic Environmental Assessments, Ainhoa Gonzalez, Associate Professor at University College Dublin (UCD), launched a ground-breaking project to consolidate all available environmental data and create a standardised method for evaluating it. With the involvement and funding from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Office of the Planning Regulator (OPR), crucial technical input from the All-Ireland Research Observatory (AIRO) and the invaluable contribution of a wide range of stakeholders, she produced an Environmental Sensitivity Mapping tool. This online solution enables people to visualise and query large amounts of environmental and socio-economic information and then calculate the relative environmental sensitivity of different geographical areas.

The huge potential of the Environmental Sensitivity Mapping tool to support evidence-based environmental assessments and planning decisions was immediately recognised, but two key challenges remained: Where was the tool going to be hosted? And how could it be made available to as many people as possible? 

Solution

The project team explored various hosting options with the EPA, and then the opportunity to explore publishing it through Ordnance Survey Ireland (OSi) arose. From the start, OSi was very supportive of the project and facilitated the inclusion of the Environmental Sensitivity Mapping tool on GeoHive.

Now adopted by the Irish Government as the state’s Geospatial Data Infrastructure, GeoHive provides a secure, high-performance platform for sharing geospatial data and apps. “GeoHive is an appropriate platform to make environmental sensitivity data available to everyone and encourage wider use of this information”, Dr Gonzalez says. 

Benefits

The decision to host the Environmental Sensitivity Mapping tool on GeoHive has delivered these key benefits:

Solid, cost-effective technical infrastructure

GeoHive has provided UCD and AIRO with the dependable technical infrastructure needed for the mapping tool. “We really value the GeoHive infrastructure and are grateful to OSi for its financial support in hosting the tool”, Dr Gonzalez says. “It has given us a solid foundation for handling a lot of users and memory-intensive data requests. It would have been prohibitively expensive for UCD and AIRO to provide a technical platform of this quality, just for the Environmental Sensitivity Mapping tool.”

Easy access for large numbers of users

By making its tool available on GeoHive, UCD and AIRO have been able to achieve their goal of making centralised environmental data accessible and standardised sensitivity mapping methods available to everyone. Planners, engineers, environmental consultants and the public can easily find and use the tool to analyse over 130 environmental and socio-economic data sets, all in one place, without the need for technical GIS knowledge or specialist software.  Users can select the data layers they need, adjust the weighting of different factors to determine their relative importance and produce sensitivity maps for any geographical area in Ireland. “OSi has been very helpful, very engaged and very supportive of our goals”, Dr Gonzalez says.

Faster environmental data analysis

The use of GeoHive significantly accelerates the analysis process, by enabling high speed data queries.  The scientific method of calculating environmental sensitivity, which is applied in the tool, has been available since 2009, but it used to take trained GIS technicians approximately a week to undertake the required analysis. “Now that the Environmental Sensitivity Mapping tool is available on GeoHive, anyone can apply this method and do sensitivity mapping in a couple of minutes,” Dr Gonzalez says. “The platform is very reliable, so users can be assured of being able to access the tool whenever they need it.”

“GeoHive is an appropriate platform to make environmental sensitivity data available to everyone and encourage wider use of this information.”

– Ainhoa Gonzalez, Associate Professor,University College Dublin

Confidence in GeoHive for the future

The project team is confident that GeoHive has the longevity, flexibility and technical strength to support the Environmental Sensitivity Mapping tool long into the future. Over time, Dr Gonzalez believes that many more people will discover the tool on GeoHive, leading to it being used to support decision-making in a wider range of projects, beyond development planning. “The Environmental Sensitivity Mapping tool is the culmination of many years of work by University College Dublin, AIRO, the EPA and the OPR,” she says. “OSi has made it possible for us to make this tool effectively available to all. We are very grateful for their collaboration and ongoing support.”

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