ArcNews Online

Summer 2009
[an error occurred while processing this directive]

E-mail to a Friend
Northern Ireland Environment Agency Quickly Responds to Pollution and Shipping Incidents with GIS

Emerald Isle's Coastal Contingency Plan


  • ArcGIS is used to create charts and graphs showing characteristics of the Northern Ireland coastline.
  • Voluminous information is accessible via an online spatial data catalog served from ArcGIS Server.
  • Enterprise GIS enables the NIEA Coastal Survey Team to represent more than 40 layers of data spatially.

Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) is the largest agency within the Department of the Environment in Northern Ireland, with approximately 700 staff. NIEA takes the lead in advising on and implementing the government's environmental policy and strategy in Northern Ireland. The agency carries out a range of activities that promotes the government's key themes of sustainable development, biodiversity, and climate change. Its overall aims are to protect and conserve Northern Ireland's natural heritage and built environment, control pollution, and promote the wider appreciation of the environment and best environmental practices.

  click to enlarge
Ortho maps and aerial photographs are used in coastal contingency planning.

NIEA is the body responsible for coordinating the response to any pollution incident that may affect the coastline of Northern Ireland and is a partner in the Emergency Response to Coastal Oil, Chemical and Inert Pollution from Shipping (EROCIPS) project jointly funded by Interreg IIIb (a European Union-funded program that helps Europe's regions form partnerships to work together on common projects), the United Kingdom's Department of Communities and Local Government, and NIEA.

The EROCIPS project aims to develop "a transferable methodology that communicates relevant information to responders and decision-makers involved in shoreline counter pollution operations following a shipping incident." In the context of EROCIPS, a shipping incident is considered to be the large-scale accidental discharge of hydrocarbons, chemicals, or inert material (timber, plastics, etc.), carried as cargo, into the coastal marine environment. The incident may result in contamination of coastal habitats and/or pollution damage to the natural, human, and built resources they support.

Migrating the Information

NIEA is the repository for a diverse range of coastline information concerning, for example, vehicle access points, pedestrian access points, equipment lay-down areas, wastewater treatment discharge points, coastal assets, booming sites, and National Trust areas—in total, more than 40 distinct types of data. This information is held in both hard- and soft-copy formats, sitting in disparate locations throughout the agency. On examination, all this information was found to have a spatial component, and as a result, a GIS was determined to be the ideal platform on which to integrate and communicate this information.

The challenge was to migrate all this information to a GIS platform that would enable the NIEA Coastal Survey Team to integrate all the information NIEA held on coastal assets and communicate this information to external stakeholders, such as local councils, port authorities, other government bodies, cleanup contractors, and waste management companies, which also play their part in the response to a large incident.

Conor Symington, EROCIPS and coastal contingency planning officer at NIEA, comments, "In 2002, I was tasked with compiling the data required to populate the data directory component of a coastal contingency plan for Northern Ireland. I spent the next 18 months or so out on the coastline carrying out surveys of all aspects of the physical coastal environment and liaising with a large variety of external and departmental agencies in order to draw together all the requisite datasets. My thinking at all times was toward producing a GIS-enabled set of layers and maps of all the data so that responders during a major coastal pollution incident (e.g., from a shipping casualty) would have at their fingertips all the necessary data and tools to mount a timely, effective, and appropriate response to the incident facing them."

Building on the Enterprise Environment

After examining the technology options, Esri Ireland, Esri's distributor in Ireland, was engaged to advise and assist NIEA in building a GIS platform to meet its needs under the EROCIPS project. To meet the objectives of the agency, Esri Ireland carried out a requirements analysis that considered

  • The nature of existing datasets and their readiness for inclusion in GIS
  • How to collect new information and collate it for ultimate use within GIS
  • How to synchronize and share information of common interest to multiple business units within the agency
  • The technical specification of a GIS hardware and software platform that could store, integrate, analyze, and communicate this data

Following the requirements analysis, a decision was made to build on the enterprise GIS environment already implemented within NIEA. This solution is based on the ArcGIS 9 technology suite and utilized ArcGIS Server for the management, visualization, and dissemination of spatial data. ArcGIS Desktop (ArcEditor) clients are used for desktop visualization, analysis, and data capture.

Accessing and Visualizing Mapping

The solution was delivered through the development of an online spatial data catalog served from ArcGIS Server. Using ArcGIS Desktop, agency users can now access and visualize all basemapping from Ordnance Survey Northern Ireland—including all large-scale mapping and aerial photography—in conjunction with the NIEA Coastal Survey Team's own business layers that include hyperlinks to additional nonspatial data.

Aerial photography taken from an oblique angle.

Rapid response is key to the effective management of any pollution incident. With the simple click of a mouse on a digital map, the agency's incident managers can now access all relevant information such as the harbor booming plans for Belfast Lough, where booms would be erected in the event of a disaster; ground-level photographs; additional aerial perspective photography (taken at oblique angles by coastal marine helicopters); and various vector datasets. Access to hyperlinked photographs of harbor piers, beach entrances, slipways, and other coastal assets will allow the Coastal Survey Team to ascertain the likely specifics of deploying beach cleaning equipment at the best possible vantage points.

Although pollution incidents cannot be readily predicted, contingency planning is undertaken by the agency. This is where the analytic capability of ArcGIS has been particularly valuable. The system has been used to create charts and graphs showing the characteristics of the Northern Ireland coastline section by section. Users are able to view shoreline substrate types and, as a result, determine the type of cleanup response required for that particular substrate type. This allows the agency to predetermine likely appropriate responses to various incident types, thereby feeding into the rapid response at the time of an incident.

A Model of Data Management

The enterprise GIS environment has enabled the Coastal Survey Team to represent more than 40 layers of data spatially; see spatial patterns emerge; make informed decisions in planning response to minor and major shipping incidents, such as ship spillages; and visualize ship accident "black spots" and ship traffic density of the Northern Ireland coastline.

"The outcome has been extremely useful," remarks Symington. "The user-friendly desktop data management and planning tool has been as good as, if not better than, we had originally hoped for prior to the project completion. One of the most pleasing aspects of the finished tool is that it has an in-built versatility, because not only is it loaded onto the enterprise server within NIEA and therefore can be shared across the agency, but it also has offline capabilities, meaning that the datasets and tools can be utilized in the field using a notebook PC and an external hard disk drive, without being connected to the NIEA network. Other teams have expressed an interest in following our model."

More Information

For more information, contact Conor Symington, EROCIPS and coastal contingency planning officer, Northern Ireland Environment Agency (e-mail:; visit; or contact Joanne McLaughlin, Esri Ireland (e-mail:

Contact Us | Privacy | Legal | Site Map