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Spatial NI: stepping stones to the future

By Peter Fitzgibbon - 1st November 2013 - 13:37

Suzanne McLaughlin reports on real progress in delivering the Northern Ireland Geographic Information Strategy

Northern Ireland (NI) has recently completed its second report reviewing the implementation of the Northern Ireland Geographic Information (GI) Strategy 2009 - 2019 . The original strategy was published in 2009 and endorsed by the Northern Ireland Executive. Implementation started in April 2010.

By creating a 10 year strategy, the limitations of technology which is changing at a rapid pace were able to be left to one side. The strategic vision as detailed below was therefore set suitably high:

Vision of NI GI Strategy

We will improve services and thereby develop the economy, the environment, and the society of Northern Ireland by placing information about location at everyone’s fingertips and supporting the development of sufficient skills and knowledge to exploit this information.

Consideration of the main objectives in the strategy (listed below) revealed that the creation of a Spatial Data Infrastructure (SDI) as shown in figure 1 for Northern Ireland would achieve many of the set objectives.

Strategy Objectives

A. To improve the lives of Northern Ireland citizens through the sharing of geographic information to facilitate more effective decision making

B. To educate and improve everyone’s understanding of the power of geographic information and promote its benefits

C. To control the costs of data management by co-ordinating the creation and maintenance of data sets and eliminating duplication in existing datasets

D. To utilise core geographies as common reference data to improve data utilisation and sharing

E. To ensure that systems, standards and business relationships are in place so that the right geographic information is easily accessible in all of the right places and in a timely way

F. To increase skill levels so that everyone who needs to use geographic information knows what they need to know to accomplish this effectively

G. To conform with emerging national and European legislative requirements relating to geographic information

H. To create strong leadership and governance to implement the strategy and embed its recommendations so as to improve the economy, the environment and the society of Northern Ireland.

The SDI encompasses not just the technical systems but the data (including standards), the funding, the governance, the vision and, most importantly, the skills both technically and in awareness of senior managers of how utilising GI can inform more effective decision making.

Second review

Four years into implementation this second review highlights the continuing progress that has been made in implementing the various objectives of the strategy in order that citizens, government and the private sector can maximise the value of Geographic Information within Northern Ireland. The review includes information on:

  • How NI has met all of the EU INSPIRE Directive (Infrastructure on Spatial Information in Europe) targets to date (3rd December 2013 is looming though!), and how INSPIRE has focused minds and acted as an accelerator to enable the achievement of some of the strategy objectives such as enabling the sharing and embracing of common standards in order to initiate data interoperability.
  • The development of Spatial NI™, a centralised portal to find and access spatial data has delivered
  • Significant savings to departments in providing a technical infrastructure to meet the demands of the EU INSPIRE Directive on spatial data. The portal although operational for over a year now has not yet been officially launched as the overwhelming demand for its services has already meant that it requires an upgrade to ensure it continues to meet INSPIRE performance criteria.
  • How the strategy is raising awareness in policy areas about the use of GI through providing a module on the application of GI on a Northern Ireland Civil Service Policy Skills Learning and Development Programme.
  • How some organisations in Northern Ireland are making best use of GI by creating internal GI Strategies and corporate GI systems; and finally
  • How GI and Spatial NI, at the request of the Northern Ireland Civil Contingencies Group played a vitally important role in emergency response firstly during the March 2013 severe weather incident where over 40,000 animals lost their lives and also supporting the G8 meeting in County Fermanagh.
  • The review also looks ahead at areas where further work is needed in order to progress the strategy and develop a fully fledged SDI for NorthernIreland. Such as:
  • The need to build links between existing government data both within and between organisations by embracing initiatives such as INSPIRE and Linked Data to realise efficiencies in joining up Northern Ireland data;
  • To work on improving the quality of data in Northern Ireland for example through user feedback;
  • The need to work with departments on the development of a GI profession to ensure a sustainable workforce within government;
  • Encouraging more organisations to use GI to realise efficiencies in the use and sharing of data across government; and
  • The continuing need to raise the profile of GI among departments in Northern Ireland and get GI embedded into all policy and decision making.

That’s not bad progress for four years into a 10 year strategy! However, Northern Ireland has been at this for a number of years. This is the second iteration of a GI Strategy with the first being published in 2003. We have made significant progress in some areas however are continuing to identify opportunities to highlight where the use of GI can be an enabler and deliver efficiencies across the whole of the Northern Ireland Public Sector.

Dr. Suzanne McLaughlin is the Northern Ireland INSPIRE & GI Strategy Coordinator at Land & Property Services, Northern Ireland (

Pictured above: 1. Giant's Causeway in County Antrim. Photo: Gigi Peis / Shutterstock

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