Data management: a bird's eye view

Environmental data, and the management thereof, is now vital to the work of industry, scientists and others. The RSPB, formed in 1889 by a group of people who wanted to ban the practice of using Grebe feathers in ladies' hats, today employs 'Adaptive Server Enterprise' and 'Spatial Query Server' solutions. But will they fly?

Merlin is a highly sophisticated mapping application that uses Sybase Adaptive Server Enterprise and Spatial Query Server to represent millions of relational database records geographically with a MapInfo front-end.

Visual mapping
One of the RSPB's major responsibilities is the observation and recording of bird populations across the UK, especially on Important Bird Areas (IBAs), Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), and RSPB-operated nature reserves. The charity needs an accurate record of bird activity for many reasons, one of which is to help planning authorities. They use the populations of certain species such as the Dartford warbler (Sylvia undata, pictured) as an indicator of the environmental well-being of a site and its surroundings.

Before the new system, the RSPB used a database called the Sites and Species Database (SSDB). Unfortunately, the information contained within the database was difficult to access because of its complex structure. The SSDB offered no way of visually representing the records collected painstakingly by RSPB volunteers and the sheer volume of data were causing important trends to go unnoticed. Melanie Bryer, Project Griffin project manager, attests: "To interrogate the database, users needed an advanced understanding of database query language before they could even submit questions to the database."

The old database also prevented the RSPB from posing questions in real-world language. Bryer: "Our existing database gave us little opportunity to ask important questions, nor could we examine an individual area in any great detail," she adds. "Information was recorded under grid reference. It is almost impossible to identify any connection between research sites and a potentially problematic development from just a set of map references."

The RSPB decided that a visual mapping solution would help users understand the data more effectively by 'overlaying' the records onto computerised maps of the UK. The only problem was that few companies offered a way of achieving this with the volumes and kinds of data that the RSPB wanted to hold - a total of 10 million records over 10 years - and that allowed the data to be distributed to offices across the UK in a user-friendly system.

Lost the plot?
The RSPB chose the PC-based applications, MapInfo Professional and MapBasic from MapInfo Inc because they offered a simple graphical user interface and high levels of customisability. Two servers to complement MapInfo were then picked, the first an Oracle database and the second, a Sybase Spatial Query Server and Adaptive Server Enterprise solution.

"It was important that Sybase demonstrated that the servers and MapInfo products would work together. We also needed to know that our complex boundaries would work within the system. Many conservation sites, for example, are made up of several separate areas that are treated as a single entity, while others have holes in the middle which are not part of the site - the 'Swiss cheese' sites."

Merlin wields its magic
The new solution, Merlin, represents millions of data records on an easily navigated virtual map of the UK. Sites have accurate boundaries, while bird records are either associated with a site or are shown as a grid reference square, the size of which depends on the accuracy of the reference.

Complex geographical information can now be viewed at different scales and users can highlight a region of interest with a click of the mouse. The system then graphically displays the details of any data recordings that took place in the selected area. Most importantly, by illustrating complex data graphically, research scientists can now identify geographical patterns almost instantly.

The first phase of Merlin is complete. The new infrastructure has enabled the charity to visually display data about individual populations and conservation sites nationwide. Additions in the next phase, will make it possible for the RSPB to know whether populations are nesting in a certain type of habitat such as woodland or heathland, and whether or not proposed developments are likely to impact rare flora.

In addition, land usage can be tracked and occurrences of natural or man-made disasters can be monitored. Merlin could help the RSPB and its partners react more effectively to the next oil spillage or pollution incident and assess the ultimate environmental impact of these occurrences on the indigenous wildlife.

In the future, the RSPB will use the Merlin system to track the changing face of the country's landscape. This will enable the charity to observe the way changes to the environment affects bird populations and other wildlife. It is also hoped that Merlin will be integrated into the UK's National Biodiversity Network (NBN), a union of conservation and other like-minded organisations collaborating to create an information network of biodiversity data accessible via the internet. So now staff can spend more time observing birds and less time studying query language and data types. It flies.


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