Implementing Information Systems for Coasts and Oceans
by Tim Stojanovic (School of Geography and Geosciences, University of St.Andrews)

Happy New Year 2010, along with a new decade, we have a new UK Marine (and Coastal Access) Act, with the Scottish Act given Royal Assent on 10th March.  Altogether there seem to be plenty of drivers for better data and information management in the marine and coastal environment!  A lot of work has already started with Marine Environmental Data and Information Network (MEDIN), and the Crown Estate’s Marine Resource System (MaRs) and the development of European Marine Observation and Data Network (EMODNET) by the EU.  This will be coupled with the demands for data and information by the new Marine Management Organisation and initiatives in devolved governments including Marine Scotland.

In this short article, I’d like to present the view from a more ‘bottom up’ perspective.  The one thing the initiatives listed above have in common is that they are all national and international ‘top down’ approaches.  One of the challenges they are likely to find is that ‘the devil is in the detail’ as far as data and information are concerned!  At the local and regional levels, Engineers, Planners, Surveyors, Tourism and Recreation officers, Developers, Marine Industries, Fisheries officers, Port managers, Environmental managers, Conservations, Wardens, Archaeologists and Scientists all collect and use marine and coastal data and information for a variety of purposes.  As we focus on the sub-national regional scale, vast data and information are already being employed for practical planning and management purposes (although there remain significant gaps in our knowledge).  The challenge is to co-ordinate this better, not only for the purpose of producing the new marine plans, but for a variety of other planning and management purposes, for which this information constitutes a vital evidence base.

There are two key ideas I would like to raise in this article:

Firstly, we should find ways of linking different initiatives happening in coasts and seas at different scales - in my opinion, sharing data and information is best attempted using the concept of an ‘Information System.’  This concept has been unpacked in a succinct set of guidelines produced for coastal professionals which are introduced below.

Secondly, we should be aware that new Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) are providing new opportunities and ways of going about this- arguably the internet has allowed us to develop beyond the concept of libraries and repositories towards virtual networks of knowledge.  A cartoon illustration below is provided to help us reflect on what the implications of this might be.

Guidelines for Information Systems Development

The COREPOINT EU Interreg 3C project (http://corepoint.ucc.ie/), with twelve partners from Ireland, the UK, France, Netherlands and Belgium sought to generate collaboration between scientists, policy makers and managers through focusing research on the issues and policies that influence coastal management at regional, national and local levels across the Northwest Europe.  As part of an integrated approach to capacity building, the project also conducted research into data and information management at the coast.  The key output of this part of the research is a 30 page set of guidelines, targeted at coastal professionals.  The report entitled “Guidelines for Implementing Local Information Systems at the Coast” is available in French and English on the COREPOINT Project website

What?

The guidelines describe how a group of organisations should go about establishing an information system.  They are based on the experience of coastal managers operating at local and regional scales.

How?

Drawing on practical experience and ideas from the discipline of information science, the guidelines outline seven key steps involved in implementing an information system:

1. Justifying Information Systems
Making the case for systems development, including improved data accessibility, inter-agency co-operation and public accountability.

2. Having Clear Purposes
Supporting decisions: this is the difference between an internal filing system and an inter-organisational communication system.

3. Involving Users
Mapping existing information resources and clearly relating them to decision making processes, (including the general public).

4. Solving Technical Obstacles
Metadata, Standards, Interoperability, XML, Access agreements, Object Taxonomies, Portals. Ontologies. Distributed Applications and Programming Interfaces.

5. Deploying Technology
Using a variety of ICT tools to collect, store, analyse, visualise and communicate information, increasingly via distributed information systems.

6. Checking for Quality Assurance
Avoiding ‘Rubbish in - Rubbish out’ syndrome, developing information policies.

7. Implementation and Training
Getting a system embedded into the daily practices of stakeholders.

Why?

The guidelines were developed in response to a long heritage of work that has identified problems and inefficiencies in the way we manage marine and coastal data and information. A variety of organisations begun to recognise the challenges and possibilities from the 1990s onward.  BODC produced an integrated CD of UK marine data entitled UKDMAP.  The British National Space Centre and EU Space Agency commissioned comprehensive reviews of the demand for Earth Observation data in the coastal zone.  A number of overview reports were produced by the now defunct UK Inter-Agency Committee for Marine Science and Technology (IACMST), which recognised the need to address many problem issues, via its Marine Environment Data Action Group (MEDAG).
In the UK, the issues were draw together and highlighted as part of a series of UK workshops run by Frances Franklin and Jules Harries at CEFAS, which eventually led to the establishment of the very magazine you are reading - Marine Data News.  More recently the Association for Geographic Information Coastal and Marine Special Interest Group have championed the integration of marine geospatial information, and SeaZone have produced a suite of marine geospatial data products.  CoastNet have launched CoastWeb, an intelligent marine and coastal portal support professionals.  Efforts to coordinate coastal data at regional scales have also been significant, especially the work of Coastal Defence Groups and some Coastal Partnerships- the Channel Coastal Observatory was the first of a number of a regional coastal monitoring programmes.  Commercial interests have together highlighted the potential advantages of better use of publicly funded data as the UK Marine Information Council (now Marine Information Alliance).  In Europe, “information” was a key topic EU Demonstration Project on ICZM 1996-1999, and now building a marine data infrastructure has emerged as a key action for DG Maritime Affairs and Fisheries.  So are you feeling any better off for all this?

My own research as an academic[1] has demonstrated how stakeholders involved in producing coastal strategies struggle with ‘information overload.’  This is partly an outcome of the complexity of what is going on in our coasts and seas, and partly our bureaucratic systems of administration. These have developed since the Victorian era and have led to increasing specialisation of knowledge about our coasts and oceans.  In place of a sectoral approach that produces ‘silos’ of knowledge, we now have the opportunity to apply new technologies and develop new networks of collaboration.  But beware of the computer geek flogging you techie solutions- many of these have foundered on the rocks, partly I believe due to misplaced ideas- in the final part of this article I’d like to outline a particular vision for making sense of our data glut…

From Repositories of Data to Virtual Networks of Knowledge

The cartoon below represents two different ways of thinking about solutions.  The left hand picture presents a traditional way of thinking.  The right hand picture presents the solutions which hopefully the next generation, brought up on social networking technologies, will build for us.  The table below describes some of the differences behind the two concepts.

 tim_stojanovic

  • Concept like a traditional library/data warehouse/repository
  • Concept like an inter-organisational information system
  • Some Metadata
  • Full metadata according to marine standards
  • Use of search engines and portals
  • Use of intelligent systems to sort and share data (e.g. semantic webs or ontologies)
  • Conceived around the user as an individual
  • Conceived around the users as a collaborative network of learning
  • More focus on tools for analysing data, less focus on the human element.
  • Focus on both analytical tools and deliberation tools.  Close integration of communication and information technologies.
  • Problematique: glut of data and difficulties accessing other organisations holdings.
  • Problematique: Overload of data for individual and specialisation of knowledge.
  • Mainly a data management solution
  • Mainly a knowledge management solution, built on a data management infrastructure
  • Data Driven (based around needs of organisations who collect or supply data)
  • Goal Driven (based around needs for successful planning and management)
  • New technologies certainly have dramatic potential, but it’s probably worth remembering that the aim of marine data and information management is ultimately to support good relationships and networking, and to help sort and deliver information to users at the appropriate stage of decision making.

    Dr Tim Stojanovic, School of Geography and Geosciences and Scottish Oceans Institute, University of St.Andrews/ Marine and Coastal Environment Research Group, Cardiff University. (Timothy.Stojanovic@St-Andrews.ac.uk)


    [1] Stojanovic, T.  Ballinger, R.C.  (2009) Responding to Coastal Issues in the UK: managing information and collaborating through partnerships.  Oceans Yearbook 23 Brill: Leiden. 445-472.

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    In This Issue
    01/09/2010
    HR Wallingford and SeaZone join to advance marine information
    The NMR’s Record of England’s Underwater Heritage
    Implementing Information Systems for Coasts and Oceans
    New High Resolution Bathymetry Model of the English Channel
    HUMBOLDT: providing tools to harmonise geographic data
    An Update on MEDIN Standards
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