What maps can do

by Michiel Voermans 

Over the past two years, “using maps” or Geographical Information Science (GIS) has improved the way the Trust engages with members of the public, stakeholders, and partners to raise awareness of the pressures on some of Scotland’s most diverse and vibrant river catchments.  Using digital storytelling through map and mobile data capture solutions, we can now evidence the urgent need for conservation schemes and better articulate the success of its intervention projects.

Five-year river catchment management plans have been replaced by interactive, living ArcGIS StoryMaps

Up-to-date data is viewed, queried, edited, and collected in the field by all Trust employees using ArcGIS Field Maps

New habitat maps are created digitally in the field with an Esri SWEET app, simplifying complex phase one habitat surveys

The Challenge

Our district is a haven for diverse wildlife species and a popular destination for recreation, but its future is threatened by pollution, past and future development, and climate change. At The Forth Rivers Trust, we always aim to make people more aware of these pressures on our river catchments and secure funding for new projects to improve river environments. However, it’s not easy to reach everyone within the vast total area of over 4,500 km2 that our district covers, and reports we have previously published have not always reached a sufficiently wide audience.

At the same time, at the Trust internally there’s been a need to improve the quality of the data that we rely on for evidencing the need for conservation projects and monitoring the success of our interventions.  Much of our data used to be collected laboriously using pen and paper, and a great deal of time was subsequently required to digitise it.  Precise location references could not always be recorded, and our staff had no way of viewing or editing data while being in the field.

The Solution

Our first steps in upping our game GIS-wise was when we decided to transform one of our five-year river management plans from static pdf documents into highly visual, interactive digital narratives. For this, we relied on a company called ESRI, who are the main player in the market of mapping software while at the same time provide their products to non-profit organisations for near-free. One of their products is a story authoring, web-based application that allows us to share our maps in the context of narrative text and other multimedia content and is called ArcGIS StoryMaps. The first of these pioneering new plans covered the Forth and Teith river catchments and used an ArcGIS StoryMap template to make detailed information about the pressures on these key river environments more engaging for partners, stakeholders, grant-givers and the general public.

In order to be able to use maps in our StoryMap, maps have to be stored in ESRI’s cloud-based mapping and analysis solution called ArcGIS Online first. Therefore, as part of the process of creating the StoryMap we had to digitise a large amount of historic data, as well as clean, edit, merge, and standardise all of our organisation’s existing datasets.  This data preparation was time-consuming, but paved the way for us to gain even more value from our data assets.  “Once we had put all our data into ArcGIS Online for the StoryMap, we were only a few small steps away from making it possible for our staff to amend, edit, query and collect data in the field,” says Michiel Voermans, Data and GIS Officer at Forth Rivers Trust.

Consequently, soon after the launch of the StoryMap, we were able to create a mobile solution through another ESRI product called ArcGIS Field Maps, which allowed our team’s conservationists, ecologists and even other staff members to view, collect and edit data in the field. The Field Maps app is very easy and intuitive for anyone to use on mobile phones, enabling us to capture accurate information and locations on issues including invasive species, sewerage outflows and river barriers. 

Following the success of ArcGIS Field Maps, the Trust also began to use an advanced Esri app to help it conduct complex phase one habitat surveys.  Easy to use for non-GIS experts, this so called SWEET app allows ecologists to capture detailed information, pictures, and locations and map everything they see digitally on tablets, while in the field. 

The Benefits

 Raised public awareness of river pressures

By converting our river management plans into ArcGIS StoryMaps, we have been able to reach a wider audience and improve public understanding of the diverse challenges for river catchment areas.  “Our Forth and Teith Catchment Management Plan StoryMap received over 2,400 views within the first year, whereas a pdf plan would not have reached 10% of this number, even in five years,” says Voermans.  “ArcGIS StoryMaps enable us to engage with more people, raise awareness of the pressures on river catchments and highlight opportunities for improvement.”

Living – not static – management plans

With its new StoryMap approach, we have been able to turn its static, pdf river management plans into living documents that can be updated regularly as new information becomes available.  As organisation we now can, for example, share up-to-date information on the status of projects, such as removing man-made barriers to fish migration.  No longer do we need to produce new plans say every five years, as unlike the pdf plans, the StoryMap plans don’t get out-of-date.  “ArcGIS has enabled us to take a huge leap forwards in the way that we monitor river catchments and plan new management schemes to protect and regenerate these vibrant and diverse environments,” Voermans says.

Up to 50% time savings on habitat surveys

As we no longer have to digitise data collected on paper in the field, it is saving a tremendous amount of time.  “Digitising habitat data and hand-drawn maps in the office can take as much time as conducting the survey in the field,” Voermans explains. “Our use of Esri mobile data capture solutions is, therefore, leading to a time saving of up to 50%.”

Better data for grant applications

ArcGIS Field Maps and the Esri SWEET app have enabled us to capture more accurate, location-specific data and gain clear evidence to support bids for funding for new river restoration schemes. The data improvements also help our organisation to more precisely monitor the success of its interventions and continually strengthen the case for improving river environments for wildlife, communities and visitors alike.  “Our role is to give a voice to the rivers,” says Voermans, “and maps help us to do this.”

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