Plotting the Renaissance in Belfast

By Matthew Spencer

belfast Belfast City Council uses mapping software to improve services to citizens

Belfast in Northern Ireland is undergoing a renaissance having experienced record increases in economic growth and prosperity in recent years. Since 1999, this City has received over £250 million of investment from the British Government and multinational companies, which has created hundreds of new jobs in a variety of knowledge intensive industries. At the same time, the region has seen an increase in the number of young people of Northern Ireland living within a 50-kilometre radius of the City. Entrusted with providing vital services to this ever-changing region is Belfast City Council.

As the largest of the 26 District Councils in Northern Ireland, Belfast City Council is responsible for providing a varied range of essential services from waste management and building control to support for the arts, tourism and economic development. Employing over 2,400, Belfast City Council has 102 operational centres.

To an organisation of this size with such wide-ranging responsibilities, information is key. But having this information on databases is not enough, as Belfast City Council recognised at a comparatively early stage, the benefits of using location-based mapping software to create, maintain, analyse and share important data. This has had the effect of not only accelerating the decision-making process within the Council but also improving service delivery.

In 1997, the Council invested in mapping software from MapInfo Corporation. The Council chose MapInfo Professional, as its desktop solution, which was supplied by specialist and local MapInfo partner, the CDR Group. Based in the Peak District of the UK, the CDR Group provides consultancy, technical support and training for the full range of MapInfo products.

CDR began working with Belfast City Council in 1997 and at that early stage, the Council used the software to analyse the composition of the population, based on the 1991 Northern Ireland census. Data, which previously could not be easily extracted about the region, could now be visualised, assessed and acted upon more quickly. For example, this project provided details to the Council on the levels of employment in the area, the city's infrastructure and the location of various businesses as well as revealing details about the city's deprivation areas and the age of the population.

Since then, a number of different departments within the Council have benefited from the multi-functionality of MapInfo Professional. One example is the management of leisure and recreational facilities for the City. As almost one quarter of the population of Belfast is under the age of 16, the Council uses MapInfo's software to discover if leisure and recreational facilities reflect service requirements. This analysis has reduced inequalities in the City and has allowed improved allocation of available leisure resources to benefit all citizens, both young and old.

Recently, the environmental cleansing department of the Council has used the Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software to improve the cleanliness of the city. Previously all data possessed by this department was held in a bespoke database but the flexibility of MapInfo Professional allowed the importation of those datasets, providing a visual representation of areas requiring attention, for the first time. Now Belfast City Council can effectively track resources and at a very simple level, can identify when particular streets have been swept. More strategically for Belfast City Council, this further illustrates how GIS can be used to match resource with requirement.

Belfast City Council has also placed GIS at the heart of its reactive plans in the event of emergencies, such as a chemical explosion. Using MapInfo Professional, it has developed a strategy for identifying nearest available resources such as hospitals and centres where shelter could be provided or used as food distribution points.

According to Richard McCrea of Information Systems Belfast (the IT department for Belfast City Council), the numerous uses for mapping software have delivered significant Return on Investment (ROI)."Belfast City Council's use of GIS has increased significantly as more departments become aware of what this kind of technology can do for them.Long lists of figures can be meaningless to the untrained eye while the presentation of information through maps grabs the attention, is easy to read and speeds up the decision-making process."

The latest GIS project undertaken by the ISB is the development of an Intranet site for Belfast City Council using MapInfo's MapXtreme® Java Edition, again supplied by CDR Group. As various departments within the Council had already leveraged significant value from location-based intelligence, it made sense from Mr McCrea's perspective to make the benefits of GIS available to everyone in the organisation.

"Many of the departments within Belfast City Council were amazed at what GIS could do for them and word about the functionality afforded by the system had spread. But not everyone in the Council needed to manipulate maps, as many only required a simple viewing facility. The most practical solution had to be robust and easy-to-use. So we selected MapXtreme to build that solution."

That new solution is called Discover Belfast and it enables all City Council employees with an Internet connection to access new maps and aerial photography through a secure website. With over 25 percent of Council employees having used Discover Belfast to date, Richard McCrea is delighted with its initial success.

"As the ISB department already possessed Java development skills, we found it very easy to work with MapXtreme and to tailor it to our own requirements. Since implementation, Discover Belfast has become a cost-effective way of introducing the benefits of GIS to a wider audience in the Council."

Potential future uses of GIS within Belfast City Council include developing mapping software for use on mobile devices and a vehicle tracking system. Whatever the future holds, Mr McCrea is confident that mapping software will remain instrumental in the Council's activities."As Belfast City Council has grown and changed, our requirements for GIS have also evolved. The software has been robust enough to develop with us and most importantly, location-based intelligence is assisting the Council in attaining its goal of making Belfast a better place to live for all its customers."

Published Thursday, August 7th, 2003

Written by Matthew Spencer

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