Geographic Information Systems: are maps only pretty pictures or is there more?

by iLaria Marengo

We see maps every day, we use them when we travel and we refer to them to look for places and locations, but have you ever thought what makes a map? Basically, a map is a symbolic representation of a space. All objects within that space have a location and can therefore be mapped.. These objects, once associated with their geographic reference (location) are called spatial data. For example, a map displays boundaries, addresses, roads, buildings, wrecks and it is possible to attribute different colours or symbols according to what the objects represent. Think of the town plan for instance and its divisions into zones: residential, industrial, ports and marinas etc.
In the past, maps were made by hand, but this is no longer the case. Instead, there are computer programs called Geographic Information Systems (GIS) that allow drawing or importing data and create digital maps. GIS are very flexible and user-friendly tools as they facilitate the visualisation and analysis of spatial data. The great and unique property of GIS is not only to make pretty maps, but also to relate spatial objects (draw on maps as points, lines or areas) and overlap these data to derive information and provide it to the decision makers and the general public.

Figure 1:French hand-drawn map, circa 1800 (

But what makes a map a good map, or the information useful? It would not be so good if you were to follow a map for kilometres and figure that the building you were looking for was actually on the other side of town! Because the map reflects the data that it displays, it is obvious that the quality of a map depends on the quality of the data. The way of saying “garbage in, garbage out” is applicable to GIS. Hence, it is important to have good data, to trust the data providers, and eventually to store the data in a central repository.
In order to spread the use of GIS and initiate spatial data management in the Falklands, a project called “Information Management System and GIS Data Centre” started two years ago, funded by the Foreign Commonwealth Office. This project included several free training courses. The last course was held on the 22nd and 23rd October at FIDF and was tailored to the FIG’s policy, planning and public work departments. After the course a trainee commented “Highways operate an asset management plan that is best managed and presented in geographical form.  Undertaking the training in GIS has given me the tools to help improve the capture and presentation of information which should provide an easier approach, in the long term, to asset management”. Another trainee said “Using GIS will enable us to graphically represent statistics and information for the Islands in a comprehensive way. It will be particularly useful in visualising data for large-scale projects such as the upcoming Census, and in communicating those results to decision-makers and the public.”
 Figure 2: Map of part of the Stanley plan (2015) made with GIS.
Establishing a long term plan for developing GIS and data management within the government has multiple advantages. In fact, it means the introduction of rules and concepts such as data standards, data sharing, data access and metadata (which is information about data) recording. Thanks to a collaborative work and joined effort (FIG, SAERI, and FC) everybody can now search for information on data collected in the Falklands through the IMS-GIS Centre and its metadata catalogue online on the SAERI webpage.
In the future, public data will be accessed through the internet using a webGIS service to show and communicate information derived from mapping and analysing spatial data. Falkland Islanders will access the service without using their megabytes. So next time you look at a map, think that behind that pretty picture, there is a long process of data management and that GIS are likely to have played a role.
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Intense and happy GIS days in St Helena!

By iLaria Marengo

It took quite a long journey to reach St Helena (8 hours on the plane from Brize Norton, 11 days in Ascension, and 2 days on the RMS St Helena) but it was an extremely fruitful and worthwhile trip.

The purpose of travelling to the island was to meet the community of data “collectors and users” and introduce to them the concepts of open source GIS, metadata recording and data management. In brief, the goal was to officially start the Information Management Centre (IMS)/GIS data centre and provide the islanders training/knowledge and understanding of the open source software QGIS. In addition, time was dedicated to support Dr Judith Brown and her marine team in preparing the data for a series of analyses that will contribute to the mapping of St Helena’s marine biodiversity. The use and application of GIS as an analytical and mapping tool will be very beneficial for the Darwin project that Judith is leading and will help in delivering a marine management plan for the island.

As in the Falklands and Ascension island, in St Helena there is also a major need to standardise the procedures of data collection, storage and management. The absence of an integrated and harmonised data system translates in duplication and dispersion of data across the government departments; difficulties in sharing and accessing the data within the departments and between departments and the local National Trust; and, in the worst cases, loss of data.

On the contrary, the benefit from having the IMS/GIS data centre is that people will share a data system with the same structure across the islands, will be able to find relevant information easily and quickly thanks to an online metadata, will be familiar with the way data are stored and gathered, and will be in the position of carrying out studies and research across the islands of the south Atlantic region as the data, thanks to the standards and similar procedures, will be highly comparable.

The IMS/GIS data centre consider training and advising people on GIS concepts, data standards and procedures first priority. In St Helena 20 people from the government and the National Trust attended the QGIS course. Everybody worked on their own data: the complete beginners experimented with GIS applications and unveiled its functionalities as an analytical and mapping tool, while the intermediates challenged the open source software to test that it is as effective as a proprietary one. The result was greater than the expectations: in two weeks not only people started using QGIS and felt the tool less difficult than thought but, above all, understood that successful data collection starts from as soon as the project outcomes are defined and it is based on a careful design and thinking of the structure of the attribute table, the variables that will be measured and the tools to be used to quantify the variables.

In addition, more than 30 metadata were provided for correspondent datasets. This is the first big step that will cast light on the accessibility, availability, distribution and quality of the data across the island. All in all, the weeks in St Helena were fruitful in terms of work carried out, collaboration, knowledge and skills acquired by everybody.

After two intense and happy weeks of GIS, everybody could see some results either in forms of maps, or in terms of understanding basic data management principles, or by looking at the number of records of metadata compiled.








The challenge now is to carry on, don’t loose the enthusiasm and keep in touch remotely and through the GIS Officer who is due to arrive in Jamestown in May. The passion, the effort and collaboration that people showed in St Helena are the right “fuel” for running and making the project a success!


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GIS Courses in Ascension and Falkland Islands

By iLaria Marengo

It took a couple of months to make it real but finally scientists and government and non-government officers in both islands had the opportunity to learn about GIS and the open source QGIS.  The course was organised by SAERI and delivered by Dr Katie Medcalf, Environment Director of Environment Systems Ltd. The audience was mixed not only because of the different professional background of the attendees but also because of the level of knowledge about GIS, which ranged from complete beginners to intermediate and advanced in GIS users.

It was therefore a challenge to deliver a course that could make everybody happy but at the end the results and feedback were very positive and it was a pleasure to listen and see enthusiastic people at the end of the course. Clare Cockwell, Protected Areas Project Officer at Falkland Conservation for instance said “Thanks again for a really good course. Having to stay strong today in order not to spend the day playing on QGIS” and many others commented that they “really enjoyed the course and found it useful

Essentially the main goal was to raise awareness of how GIS can contribute in supporting the analysis of spatial data (data with spatial reference). The course objectives were to provide the main concepts behind GIS and show some direct applications of GIS tools to data collected in Ascension and in the Falklands. The point was to teach people that data are not “just a table” but are much more. Geographic data is “spatial information” that can be seen in a spatial context and is likely to be in relationship (correlation) with other data that are collected in the same geographic area.


Using QGIS








Using real examples and data brought in by the attendees was much appreciated and here below some of the results that we obtained.


Coloured DEM of the Falkland Islands









Next is to keep on surfing the GIS wave by creating a GIS community and spirit in the islands, where people get directly involved in working and using GIS. The idea is to engage people in a sort of forum where they can exchange their experience and knowledge on GIS tools, they can post their “discoveries” about how to carry spatial analysis, and ask for help. In addition, the last initiative is to open one day a week a “GIS clinic” for problem solving.

Keep on watching this space for more interesting news and activities in the South Atlantic region!!!  

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Overseas Territories get together and enthusiastic about open source GIS!

By iLaria Marengo

Hello from the Falklands! I arrived just two weeks ago after a few interesting days spent in Gibraltar and Ascension Island where I met with other enthusiastic GIS specialists working for the other Overseas Territories (OTs).
Gibraltar hosted the first OTs meeting entirely dedicated to GIS on the 8th and the 9th of September, its application and its use as a decision support tool for environmental and planning studies. There were presentations on habitat mapping through the use and analysis of satellite images in Anguilla; on using GIS as a decision support systems for coastal environment, protected habitats, waste management and contingency planning in the Cayman Islands, Jersey and Gibraltar; and examples of public participatory GIS for marine spatial planning n the Shetland Islands. The event turned out to be a great opportunity for bringing together “GIS people” from the different OTs, from the Caribbean islands, to the South Atlantic region and the European OTs. The great interaction and rapport we were able to build through exchanging knowledge and experience revealed that, despite the different backgrounds, the GIS issues encountered by everyone were in fact fairly similar. We could all learn from everybody else’s work.
The use of open source GIS, and in particular QGIS, was under the spot light. Paolo Cavallini and Luigi Pirelli were demonstrating the functionalities of the latest release of QGIS (2.0 Dufour) and the possibility of developing it by writing Python scripts and sharing them with the broad community of QGIS users. We were all thrilled and we came back to our respective islands (territories) perhaps with more enthusiasm than that with which we arrived.
The good news for me did not end in Gibraltar. Invigorated by that experience I flew to Ascension to meet up with the Conservation Centre “gang”. Sam, Nicola, Jo and Natasha were extremely kind and hospitable and we were immediately tuned in to the same “GIS frequency”. It is amazing to see how much goes on in such a small and remote island such Ascension. The team is involved in many projects, for example research is carried out on green turtles, seabird monitoring, and cataloguing of endemic plants and heritage buildings/sites. We worked on how to facilitate the use of some of the databases already set up and available, and how to make them more user-friendly. The stop over in Ascension was educational and beneficial as we will be working more and more closely with each other for the realisation of the GIS data centre for the South Atlantic OTs.Land Crab Map

I carried on my trip to the Falklands thinking positively and looking forward to the start of the project with SAERI. After the first two weeks we have a draft design of the architecture of the GIS data centre and information system. It involves the use of a metadata catalogue, QGIS for data editing, analysis and mapping, a spatial database and a web GIS service…all open source. This is in its infancy so please watch out for the next blog as we hope to come back with big news! Last but not least mention…it is great to finally meet the SAERI gang and be down here in the gorgeous Falkland Islands!

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