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  • INCASE Team

Seize the Data! - Data and the INCASE Project

Updated: Jul 15, 2021

As the GIS analyst working on the INCASE Project, LISA COLEMAN has dealt with her fair share of spatial data! She spoke about this and the challenges that come along with working with data at Natural Capital Ireland’s Data 4 Nature Workshop on May 11th, 2021, and writes about it in more detail here...

Data 4 Nature Workshop

The Data 4 Nature workshop focused on the data needs for nature-related projects and agencies. It’s aim was to establish the current circumstances for nature-related data in terms of its availability, accuracy, usability, discoverability, reproducibility and accessibility and then to make recommendations to improve them. The key findings are to be used to draw up a report with recommendations for improving the nature-related data landscape in Ireland which will be sent to Ossian Smyth, Minister of State with responsibility for Public Procurement and eGovernment.

The resounding message from the event was that all these areas need to be improved in order for researchers and agencies to reap the rewards of nature-related data. Many issues we’ve encountered with data on the INCASE project were mentioned by other speakers on the day. I even received messages in the chat after I presented empathising with the challenges I had mentioned. While it was a comfort to know we weren’t alone in our struggle, it was concerning to see that these issues were so widespread.

Data Challenges and the INCASE Project

So far, we’ve been in contact with over 30 agencies and used over 200 datasets in the development of the natural capital accounts for the INCASE project catchments. As work continues on the project, we’re continually adding to our data list. As you can probably imagine, when using so many datasets from so many agencies, there are many challenges that come along with combining or looking at the datasets holistically.

Finding the Data: Firstly, actually gathering and finding the data for the project has been a challenge. Open data portals have a lot of information, such as which has over three thousand environmental datasets available. However, the majority of datasets we used involved going directly to the data provider themselves even if the data was open source. Some of the reasons we had to do this were because we couldn’t find the “open” dataset online or there were metadata issues. It highlights the need for all data and metadata required for the natural capital accounting approach to be available in one location.

Copernicus Land Monitoring Service Urban Atlas 2012

Coverage in the Dargle (left) and Figile (below) Catchments

Coverage: Another challenge for us is the coverage of spatial data. Some really useful datasets are available for a part of a catchment or only one of the four catchments while others are available nationally. For the INCASE project, this can make it difficult to compare some aspects between the catchments.

Resolution and Coordinates: With using datasets from so many agencies, there are several different coordinate systems, different resolutions and different minimum mapping units used for the datasets. This often means more work than necessary is required to match up or compare datasets.

Time Series: Another challenge with using data from multiple agencies is that different time series are used for each agencies data collection. Some datasets we’ve used have been collected every year, others every 3 years or others every 5 years. This means that working on natural capital accounting for a specific year can be quite challenging.

Data Gaps: Data gaps are one of the main challenges we’ve encountered while working on the project. We found that the majority of data gaps are in terms of condition where very little data is collected. Often when data is available for condition it’s only released aggregated to national level. As well as this, from an ecosystem perspective, there is no ecosystem map of Ireland. We are still waiting on the OSI landcover map to be released - this will fill in some of the gaps we’ve encountered.

Electoral Division and Boundary Differences in the Figile Catchment

Catchments: Working on catchments has also proven to be difficult. This is because very few agencies report or collect data at a catchment scale. This means getting datasets to match up is complex because anything reported at electoral division or county level only for example, doesn’t match up with the catchment boundaries. This has been particularly evident as we’ve moved onto services where figures for population, water provision or livestock are reported at electoral division, small area or townland level.

Importance and Benefit of Data Gathering

While there are challenges with data, here’s an example of why gathering as many relevant datasets as possible is a key step in the Natural Capital Accounting approach.

Above is a map of the CORINE 2018 Forestry and Woodland classifications in the Dargle catchment. It’s split into four categories: broadleaf, coniferous, mixed forest and transitional woodland shrub. From CORINE we can gather that 18% of the catchment is covered in trees.

But when comparing Corine alone for extent, to when we add in the other datasets gathered such as the Native Woodland Scheme plots, Coillte plots and Article 17 data, the above map better represents the picture we get of tree cover in the catchment.

Instead of 18%, these datasets combined tell us that over 40% of the catchment is covered in trees. This is a trend that we’ve also seen in the other three project catchments, where the tree cover is approximately doubled with the extra layers added in. This shows the importance of collecting as many appropriate datasets but also having them available for use.

Final Thoughts

While working with data is often a testing process and we’ve encountered challenges along the way, this doesn’t mean that Natural Capital Accounting can’t be done. The work we’ve done so far on the INCASE Project shows that Natural Capital Accounting can be undertaken in Ireland with the data we have currently available, while also highlighting how research and data collection in certain areas could improve the process. Gathering all appropriate datasets for ecosystems and geosystems gives a clearer picture of the extent, condition and the services and benefits these systems provide, allowing us to better understand and protect the natural world around us.

The Data 4 Nature workshop highlighted that the challenges we’ve encountered at INCASE are problems faced by all data users. Agencies collecting data need to have the data user in mind when gathering, creating and releasing the dataset. This way, we can all get the most out of nature-related data in order to improve and protect our environment.

Recordings and slides of the Data 4 Nature event are available to view on the Natural Capital Ireland website.


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