As we celebrate our tenth anniversary Tom Hartley, Principal Consultant GIS, and the man responsible for the development of our GIS, reflects on the important role GIS has played in providing our clients with the information and scenario modelling required to determine what is relevant and allow efficient assessment for the benefit of the project.

Development can be a complex undertaking and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) provide vital tools in accurately answering questions, increasing the understanding of complex project implications and supporting the decision-making process.

Tom began by explaining “GIS at Atmos started life as tool supporting the activities of the ecology and ornithology teams and has never stopped performing this function, going on to generate over 30,000 bird flightlines, 25,000 habitat polygons and countless maps in the last 10 years.

“Since those early days, the role of the GIS team has fundamentally changed, as new staff, skills and technologies have opened up a range of opportunities.  Over the last decade, the team has expanded to develop an award-winning system, incorporating geographical data modelling, site search, data management and visualisation.


“By 2010, an intensive development programme was implemented to develop SPIDA (SPatial Information Delivery and Analysis), an integrated system that introduced ESRI ArcGIS technology to enable us to build a more robust data management and analysis platform.

“This new platform stored all data centrally and allows analysis models to be built on consistent data structures, whilst also allowing the whole organisation to access and interpret data being captured.

 “The development of our bespoke SPIDA platform went on to receive International recognition in GIS from ESRI and has been the basis of a number of exciting GIS-lead projects”, including:

  • Theoretical bird modelling - providing a solution to the challenge of sites that are affected by temporal trends (e.g. declining species populations) and saving time and money for our clients (nominated for Scottish Renewables Green Energy Innovation and ESRI Customer Success Awards).

  • Grid modelling - development of a database of substations and electrical networks containing capacity estimates for use in modelling of grid connection opportunities (nominated for a Heriot Watt Energy and Entrepreneurship Researcher of the Year award)

 

Today, the GIS team leads on analysis projects across a range of sectors, using the SPIDA platform to support creative solutions to challenging problems. Highlights include:

  • Customised site search models that incorporate a range of technology-specific constraints to identify suitable locations for renewable energy generation, including wind, hydro, solar and pumped storage.

  • Creation of an interactive, ecosystem services mapping tool for stakeholders of a Local Nature Partnership, providing a framework from which to make strategic decisions and identify opportunities for enhancement of the natural environment and sustainable economic growth.

  • Data-driven solutions to aesthetic products that allow efficient updating of the underlying information, such as work on poster maps displaying economic statistics for the sea fishing industry.

 

Tom also reflected on how the GIS industry has changed in the last ten years explaining how "a range of developing trends have enabled us to further the Atmos GIS team offering for our clients.

"Increased access to open data has reduced costs and enhanced our modelling capabilities for our clients, including use of Ordnance Survey woodland and building data as obstacles in screened visibility models, and infrastructure layers on site search and regional constraints projects. Data from other public bodies has also improved our models, whether Scottish Natural Heritage's EUNIS landcover dataset being used to model habitat suitability for birds of prey or the release of LIDAR stocks across England, Wales and recently Scotland, being used in visibility modelling.

"As with all recent technological changes, improvements in mobile data capture are replacing some traditional aspects of fieldwork and drones have the potential to reduce costs and provide additional information to projects in remote areas. Improvements in data portability help the team to convert data for use in non-GIS software, allowing terrain models incorporating vegetation and building screening to be built in GIS and exported for used in the production of rendered photomontages and visualisations.

"The GIS industry has also seen significant improvements in reaching and communicating with different audiences, migrating from static maps to interactive webmaps, storymaps and apps to embed mapping into a wide range of media. These advancements are likely to continue in the future within an anticipated shift towards ‘digital EIA’, where technologies including GIS drive greater efficiency and effectiveness, making the EIA process more interactive and accessible.

"A lot has changed in ten years of GIS at Atmos and the team is looking forward to seeing how it evolves over the next decade."

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