Building sensitivity atlases

Researchers, environmental managers, ecologists, researchers – we are all looking for a better perspective. Fieldwork, remote sensing and systemic understanding lets us piece together knowledge which in turn can be used to prioritize human interaction with our environment. All this knowledge represents generalizations. The paradox of generalisations is that they are some times needed for us to see our world in a manageable way. The less we see, the better some of our decissions will be.

A sensitivity atlas is a generalization. The sensitivity atlas method does not represent a method which is usually associated under laws, regulations or international agreements. It is currently a lump bag of methods given one name. More than 20 different implementations of the method are around – if not more. Given the helpful nature of most of these implementations it has been intersting to try to find one unified method. We’re working on it.

Where do they come from? Well… doing some research I found that one of the firs sensitivity atlases was South African. I found a copy of it at Oxfam in Great Britain and bought a copy. Excellent!

The method as such has a history going back over 35 years in time. In its many forms it has been a central tool for creating priority maps for land use, emergency response and more. The processes of implementation have often been associated with high costs, many man hours and high in technical capacity requirements with its many practitioners.

By establishing a better documented and more light-weight method, we hope to see many positive consequences. Here are some of them:

  • A well described method can more easily be shared through training and other communication.
  • Supporting technical implementations will be more harmonized while still being developed using different technical platforms.
  • The resulting sensitivity atlas products are easier to understand and put into context as the methods will not vary.
  • A unified method will promote the establishment of a wider community of practitioners.

At a workshop presenting a new step towards a unified method in Arusha in September 2019, representatives from 8 environmental agencies were invited and present. Our guests were from Uganda, Ghana, Tanzania, Zanzibar, Mozambique, Kenya, Somalia and Lebanon. The workshop was held by representatives from the Norwegian Environment Agency and UNEP-WCMC.

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Presented at the workshop was a first draft of a method where different data sets were prepared and processed according to tis method. In preparation a scripted procedure was prepared. Together with the procedure we also distributed country packages with prepared test data sets, grid sets down to around 800×800 meters and QGIS project files.

The software used for the processing was FME from Safe Software. It was chosen because it represented a straightforward way to implement the necessary procedure. The developed procedure requirements were written by NEA and UNEP-WCMC. The procedure was rapidly developed by the Norwegian company Norkart using FME from SAFE software. It works like a charm!

The visual programming interface in FME allowing for fast processing development.

FME is a tool which is used by many commercial entities and government offices to prepare, process and deliver data. Being a commercial tool, it would usually require the participants at a workshop like this to have their own licenses. Upon asking for in kind licenses for this work, SAFE software said yes and provided the 30 participants with licenses. We are extremely happy for this opportunity to use FME!

The presentation software for the resulting data sets was QGIS. It was primarily chosen because it is open and free software. Relevant templates for presenting the data were made and they were used at the workshop. QGIS is an excellent tool both for managing data and for presenting it in dynamic ways.

Somalia representative presenting her first sensitivity map

The reception of the tools at the workshop were overwhelming. Within 5 days all participating agencies had established their own sensitivity atlases using the available tool. For many of them this has been planned for years, but now the tools let them do this with test data prepared for his workshop. Birdlife International, IUCN, Protectedplaned.org and many more have provided data for us to use in this workshop.

Test map for Somalia using incomplete data for training purposes.

In using this method both ecological and technical knowledge is required. A crucial part of the method is to evaluate what in this method is referred to as sensitivities and priorities. This can not be done without knowledgeable ecologists and biologists. Neither can this work be done and presented without someone which can nurture the process on a technical level.

With this tool the participating environmental agencies have been emancipated. They are now technically able to process national sensitivity atlases. Continued support and advice on using different asset layers will be important. Follow up on

We will continue to document our tools on a researchgate project and will also try to post project updates as we go. If you are interested in the use of the Quarter Degree Grid Cells used in this project please read this paper.

This workshop represents an important step forward!

The following institutions deserve a special mention: Safe Software, Norkart, Tanzania Conservation Resource Centre, Obscom, #norad, #oilfordevelopment and many others.

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