Natural Capital Ireland (NCI) has launched a report containing a series of recommendations on nature-related data.

Data 4 Nature is based on feedback gathered from an online workshop which brought together data experts and users, and members of the private and public sectors.

The workshop, funded by the Open Data Engagement Fund via the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, with additional funding from the Office of Public Works (OPW), had the aim of assessing the “state-of-play for environment-related data”.

The workshop also provided information for producing a set of recommendations for a report which has been sent to Minister of State with responsibility for communications Ossian Smyth.

The event considered ways data could be better used to support the “natural capital approach” and biodiversity monitoring, in particular, while asking how data infrastructure for environmental research in general might be enhanced.

This is of “particular relevance with the Open Data Directive coming into law”, which requires public bodies “to make data available for reuse, where possible, in open and machine-readable formats”.

Recommendations for nature-related data in Ireland

The report has recommendations for improving “availability, accuracy, usability, accessibility, reproducibility and discoverability” of nature data in Ireland.

Five key recommendations are:

  • Develop one central dashboard for Irish nature data;
  • Establish robust data gathering protocols;
  • Harmonise formats;
  • Publicise and promote;
  • Ensure open and equal access for all.

The workshop heard presentations from major gatherers of environmental data including the National Biodiversity Data Centre, OPW and the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS).

There was also a series of briefings from researchers on using the Open Data Portal alongside various other data sources for their research and conservation projects, including NCI’s INCASE project, which maps Irish catchments in terms of extent and condition of their stocks and flows of ecosystem services.

“Although most existing resources have good quality data and standards, it was found that, as it stands, researchers often need to work with disparate datasets, with different coordinate systems, resolutions, time series and minimum mapping units, which made project work more difficult,” NCI explained.

“The report recommends bringing all of Ireland’s nature data together in a single dashboard [likely via the Open Data Portal which currently hosts over 3,000 environmental datasets] to enable the development of national natural capital accounts, with greater coordination of data gathering standards and protocols.”

Lisa Coleman, data analyst on NCI’s INCASE project outlined some of the challenges faced when mapping Irish catchments, saying that the “majority of datasets we used involved going directly to the data provider themselves”.

“Some of the reasons for this were because we couldn’t find the dataset online or there were metadata issues. It highlights the need for all data and metadata required for the natural capital approach to be available in one location,” Coleman said.

According to NCI, a “perception was expressed” by workshop participants that “nature-related data is currently not well used in the decision-making process”.

They also stressed that a “greater investment of funding, time and cross-sectoral engagement will be needed to ensure that the next few years are set to be a ground-breaking period for nature-related data”.

The Open Data Strategy 2017-2022 will be reviewed next year and NCI hopes its report “will provide useful recommendations” as the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform conducts research into the impact of the strategy thus far.

Natural capital

Natural capital is an “economic metaphor for nature – the stocks of nature [biodiversity, water, atmosphere and geosphere] that provide the flows of goods and services that benefit humans”, NCI said.

The Data 4 Nature workshop, held on May 11, of this year, “brought together policymakers, state agencies, data holders and academics to discuss ways in which the collection and publication of environmental, land and water data can be harmonised to facilitate the preparation of Ireland’s first natural capital accounts”.

“All data on natural systems in Ireland is collected for specific purposes such as EU reporting, national reporting, and/or relating to payments,” NCI explained in its report.

“This means that relevant datasets are gathered by different organisations, over different time periods, scales and for different purposes, using different methods to fulfil different criteria.

“There is no central information point bringing together all the data on natural systems in Ireland.

“Our workshop found that there are many very good environmental datasets but, with a large variety of datasets from different sources and data gatherers, users are faced with a set of key issues.”