Delivering Information on London’s Wildlife Through the NBN
The London open space and biodiversity records centre (Greenspace Information for Greater London - GiGL) is the key repository for such information in Greater London and, amongst other organisations, has agreements with 14 London Boroughs to supply information for planning and other purposes.
To deliver the best possible service to these partner organisations, GiGL works to mobilise the large quantity of data collected from professional surveys which it manages on behalf of the Greater London Authority and other organisations, together with high quality data from the voluntary sector, especially the London Natural History Society (LNHS), which has been developing large datasets on London’s wildlife for over a century.
In order to help mobilise its data GiGL entered into a large Defra-funded project with the NBN Trust. Having integrated several LNHS datasets with existing GiGL data holdings, GiGL uploaded its data to the NBN Gateway so that they would be available via the NBN Gateway, through the GiGL website and on the desktop Geographic Information Systems (GIS) of GiGL partners. This article will focus on the web services aspect of the project.
Uploading GiGL data to NBN Gateway for use in web services
To make the new GiGL website and MapInfo tool useful it was essential that we uploaded as much data as possible to the NBN Gateway. This was a considerable undertaking. It was necessary to:
review the NBN Gateway terms and conditions carefully to make sure they were suitable / sufficient
approach all data providers (GiGL’s dataset is collated from many sources) to get approval on how we were proposing to upload data (including how we were defining sensitive species and our proposed access restrictions)
familiarise ourselves with the access controls available on the NBN Gateway
prepare data for upload. This involved dividing our database into ‘surveys’ for the NBN, making sure all necessary keys were present and then running the data through the NBN’s data validator
draft NBN-compatible metadata
In uploading data we also had to be careful not to potentially harm financial support for GiGL, or jeopardise its continued receipt of data. However, a data provider must grant download access to a dataset in order to take advantage of the web services. Creating 2 dummy users, through which access could be managed, solved this potential problem. In this way, we could set 2 access levels:
one for members of the public/ non-authorised organisations/ the press (who will be able to see ‘sensitive’ species from GiGL surveys only at 10km resolution)
and another for GiGL SLA holders and partner organisations who have full resolution access to all data
Developing the GiGL Website to enable NBN Gateway delivered distribution maps to be utilised within it.
The first issue to overcome here was that at the start of the project GiGL didn’t actually have a website at all! So before we could think about developing a mapping interface we needed to develop a website specification and style guidelines, facilitate the co-operation between our web designer, Miranda Waugh and website developer, James Perrins and arrange server space/ website hosting. This all resulted in the GiGL website
Having established a website we could then set about developing an interactive mapping system on it. We were grateful to be introduced to the Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) team who had developed ‘What’s In My Back Yard’ (WIMBY), an article on which will feature in the Autumn NBN News. This tool delivered much of what we were looking to do and SNH were keen to make the code available in order that we could use and develop it. We were able to extend the functionality (adding Google maps) and there is plenty of scope to develop WIMBY even further. However, it did require a considerable effort to customise it for use in London, especially developing new gazetteers, images/ text and to integrate with the Greater London Authority’s site descriptions (see http://wildweb.london.gov.uk/)
WIMBY uses a gazetteer-based search to enable users to find out about recorded sightings of species in London. It’s designed to be easy to use, with simple, easy to follow instructions that lead the user through the wizard.
Firstly a user needs to specify a location; valid search terms include 4 figure grid reference (e.g. TQ28), first half of a postcode (e.g. SW17), Sites of Importance for Nature Conservation and named features such as Buckingham Palace. This returns a list of possible sites, from which the user must select one. This gazetteer can be changed/ updated via a configuration database on our server.
Next the user is asked to choose which species (from a list including those of particular interest in London) or from a list of groups (e.g. terrestrial mammals) that they would like to search for.
This is when the real magic kicks in because behind the scenes web services query the NBN Gateway and return any relevant data. Also, by sending the ‘requests’ through the dummy NBN users we created earlier (see above) we can ‘securely call’ data for GiGL partners and SLA holders – meaning they view results at full resolution, whilst public users can only see protected species at coarser resolution. Exactly what information is returned also depends, of course, not only on what data GiGL has uploaded but also, depending on the nature of data access agreements, on whether data from other NBN data contributors are in the area.
The results are displayed over 4 tabs, which allow the user to view thumbnail images of species and link to others images on the ARKive website, view details of the records in tabular format and use the interactive mapping. Users are able to view points with an OS map background or on Google maps - giving them the option to view the particular species sightings over satellite images. In addition they can pan around the area and potentially see additional species. As the user pans around the map the NBN Gateway is re-queried with neighbouring species records loaded as required.
Developing MapInfo use of NBN Gateway web services to allow data streaming into GiGL and London Borough planning systems/GIS
The second part of the project sought to use similar web services to those needed for WIMBY, but this time to query the NBN Gateway from within MapInfo GIS and not simply display the data returned but save it on the user’s computer as a .TAB file (the equivalent of an ArcGIS .shp file).
The first step in the process was to determine required functionality from our users (and manage expectations!). In this case the users/ target audience were some London Borough ecology and planning officers. This led to the development of a Mapbasic programme that, when run, installs a toolbar in MapInfo allowing the user to request information from the NBN Gateway in several ways:
by drawing a polygon around the search area (as long as it has <200 nodes and is < 2500 sq km)
by buffering around a point (the user simply clicks on the map and defines the radius)
by a ‘known area’ search. This is slightly more complicated to set up - it involves uploading geographic data to the NBN Gateway (in our case London SINCs), which allow the user to simply click on a feature in MapInfo.
Having decided on the area to search, the user is then asked which species or group they are interested in. At this point the tool queries the NBN Gateway and generates a polygon feature for each species in the search area, with the size depending on the resolution of the data (10km, 2km, 1km or 100m).
The attribute table, meanwhile, contains fields including species name, unique ID, name of the original dataset on the NBN Gateway, together with information appended from a database at the client end (in our case we chose to add a column indicating the protected status of the species – essential information for planners).
We are extremely pleased with the way the contract went and the resulting outputs. As we set about integrating these products into our business systems the tools are already generating interest from a range of existing and potential GiGL partners, as well as other biodiversity records centres and national organisations.
The fantastic outputs from this project were only possible thanks to funding from Defra and the hard work of John Swindells, John Edgington, Andrew Self, Neil Anderson, Rodney Burton, Ted Tuddenham (London Natural History Society), Trevor James, Geoff Johnson, Andy Brewer, Oliver Grafton, Jo Purdy (National Biodiversity Network), James Perrins (ExeGesIS), Alan McKirdy and team (Scottish Natural Heritage), Miranda Waugh (Auk Design), Matt Davies, Lauren Alexander, Mandy Rudd, Ian Woodward – volunteer, Lyndsey Cox, Andy Foy (GiGL), John Archer, Mike Waite (Greater London Authority), Emily Reynolds (London Borough of Redbridge), Valerie Selby (London Borough of Wandsworth), Mathew Frith (Peabody Trust).
For more information please contact Matt Davies (Data Manager - Greenspace Information for Greater London (GiGL)