How DAERA uses geospatial data to drive policy making in Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland's Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) has built and implemented an award winning Information Hub using Geographic Information System (GIS) technology to drive more effective policy making. 

The Information Hub is built on the Esri ArcGIS Enterprise geospatial platform and contains over 480 datasets, alongside analysis tools, that allows for the immediate visualisation of data to be shared across previously siloed departments. 

DAERA’s 3000 employees now have access to real-time location information, either in the office or in the field via mobile apps, that has allowed them to better address emergencies such as Covid-19, Brexit and the Avian Flu outbreak. 

“In the first year we’ve made efficiency savings of about £1 million, we have 80% faster animal welfare and prevention rates and we have a really high customer satisfaction rate,” Geraldine Devine, Deputy Digital Director at DAERA, tells Government Transformation Magazine. 

Breaking down data silos 

The Information Hub was the outcome of a three year digital and data strategy, undertaken by DAERA to align thinking about data across the department. Like many large and complex organisations, data was being held in information systems within individual business areas, meaning crucial information was being lost because of data silos - hampering DAERA's ability to quickly address emergencies. Geraldine Devine

Devine says that the goal of the Information Hub was to “break down organisational silos” and “create a single source truth for departmental data.” At the same time, DAERA wanted to expand its business intelligence capabilities and use of mobile technology. 

The team undertook an organisation-wide data gathering exercise where they met with individual teams and ran workshops to understand where the challenges were for each of the business areas. The design of the platform was built with staff users in mind to ensure that it was both accessible and met the needs of each team. The platform currently stands at 2,500 users but has the capability of enabling 100,000 users. 

Key to the success of the Information Hub was ensuring “that nobody was left behind” Devine explains. Having senior management support from the outset was a “game changer” in communicating the purpose of the initiative, as was getting staff buy-in for understanding what the interface would look like, the technologies that would be used or proof of value. 

“Culturally, it's been a massive change from where we when we started in 2019. People are much more open to the idea of sharing the data,” Devine says. 

The Environmental Farming Decision Tool

DAERA has used the Information Hub to support the delivery of its Environmental Farming Scheme (EFS), a voluntary enterprise that seeks to encourage environmentally friendly farming practices, through the creation of the EFS Decision Tool.  

The tool gives DAERA staff access to live information about a field, allowing them to assess the areas where funding can have the greatest positive impact on the environment. It works by bringing together EFS field and management plans, alongside thirty different layers of geospatial data showing environmental designations, priority habitats, water quality and historical data.

“The information has been absolutely critical in allowing us to visually see where farms may have gaps in protected areas so we can target those particular farmers and make big areas of conservation,” Devine explains

The EFS Decision Tool has helped to double the number of EFS farming agreements in 2021 from 143 to 383. 

This has led to tangible achievements: over 10,000 hectares of priority land has been brought under favourable management, 60,000 hectares of priority land has been protected, 544km of hedgerows have been planted, 445km of hedgerows have been improved and 2,800km of watercourses have been protected from erosion and runoff.

Field service: digital surveys

The Information Hub has allowed DAERA’s Veterinary Service Animal Health Group  (VSAHG) to modernise its disease investigation processes, swapping manual forms and processes for digital tools.  

Animal health and welfare inspectors now use a digital form-based survey called ArcGIS Survey123 on iPads to gather evidence to investigate outbreaks of Tuberculosis (TB), replacing the 6-page, paper-based questionnaires that had been in place for thirty years.

This automatically generates a biosecurity score and risk score for each farm, based on a pre-determined weighting of numerous farm practices and hazards. All of the data feeds back into the Information Hub, allowing DAERA to instigate the most appropriate measures to prevent the spread of disease. 

Overall, it has allowed DAERA to increase its response time to animal welfare concerns by 80%. 

Another Survey123 workflow has been developed to improve hygiene practices in meat processing plants. Similar data capture solutions are in the works, including one for managing outbreaks of Avian Influenza.

Next steps: data analytic capabilities

The Information Hub still only works as an internal solution, but DAERA has plans to start engaging the platform with external users.

“We have this vision of a single view of the customer; being able to show every user this is the data we have about you and this is how we're working with you, but also allowing them to share back,” Devine says. 

In addition, the team has plans to start building out the platform’s data analytic capabilities using Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR), aerial photography and AI to better understand key trends and to identify patterns using drone data for 3D modelling. 

“We have over 30 years of animal data that can be used to understand patterns and predict for the future. That holds a significant amount of potential in shaping future policies and schemes,” Devine says.  

Government Data Forum

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