The modern mapmakers


Maps produced by the All Island Research Observatory help us see Ireland through new eyes. A visual column in Weekend Review, featuring their work, begins today

‘Did you know that one of your neighbours has four cars?” says Justin Gleeson, the manager of the All Island Research Observatory (Airo) at NUI Maynooth, to the Irish Times photographer, as we examine his neighbourhood using Airo’s sophisticated online mapping software.

Thanks to detailed census data this mapping technology can be used to zoom in on localised data almost to street level.

“The big change in the census this year is that we have this small-area data that we never had in the past, so you can zoom right down,” Gleeson says.

He goes right into the map of Dublin to pull out data about how many people live on my street – 230 – and how many of those are over the age of 65 – 19 per cent: above the city average.

Later, at home, I use the site to discover that among my new neighbours (I’m a recent blow-in) there are three people in bad health, one family with six or more members, 18 “higher professionals” and 22 houses with no internet access; on the Pobal HP Deprivation Index the area is coloured light green, indicating “marginally above average”, up from “marginally below average” in 2006.

Of course, facilitating nosiness is not the primary purpose of Airo, a free interactive resource available at, which generates colour-coded maps that illustrate all sorts of statistical data. Stalin once noted that while one death was a tragedy, a million was a statistic. Now, in the age of mass data and statistics, more information and more numbers than ever are collected by public and private agencies. Yet, to the consternation of statisticians, scientists and town planners, people are still more moved by apocryphal tales of individual woe than by hard-crunched numbers reflecting the lives of thousands.

There’s an increasing cultural divide between those who understand data and those who are baffled by it. Gleeson has spent the past few years trying to bridge that gap with Airo, under the aegis of the National Institute for Regional and Spatial Analysis at the Iontas building at NUI Maynooth. It’s “one of the last buildings opened by Fianna Fáil,” says Gleeson. “Batt O’Keeffe turned the sod.” He and his colleagues, lead research assistants Eoghan McCarthy and Aoife Dowling, map detailed colour-coded information about Irish people, and the country’s environment and infrastructure.

Readers of The Irish Times may have noticed some of these on our pages in recent times: familiar geographies overlaid with different shades of colour. On the Airo site the information can be broken down nationally, by regional authority or even on a “small-area” level of the kind we have just been shown.

Depending on the data used, these maps can represent higher or lower levels of education, income, employment and religiosity. “There’s godless south Dublin there,” says Gleeson, pointing at a map highlighting clusters of people who have checked the “no religion” box on the census form. It can represent how close populations are to emergency services, livestock or ghost estates. “It’s like a disease,” says Gleeson with a sigh as we look at a heavily spotted countrywide map of the latter.

Airo essentially trades in data that you can understand at a glance. Its approach has ramifications for local authorities, Government agencies, community groups, NGOs and planners, who, with the right spread of information, can easily see where infrastructure or social services are lacking.

“Presenting things spatially, you can really show trends and you can see how those trends change over time,” says Gleeson. “This is all about using data to make better and more informed decisions. We have 2,500 registered users on the overall Airo site, and these include every local authority, the HSE, the IDA and Enterprise Ireland. We have received calls from public-health nurses in Donegal who are using this data to feed into their work plans in their own areas. They can look at the number of people with disabilities or in poor health in an area and decide how they’re going to manage their caseloads.”

Airo is aligned with the open-data movement, a worldwide trend for transparency. The more data that is available, the more effectively Airo can work. Those who espouse an open-data approach believe that all information collected at taxpayers’ expense should be available both to interested professionals and to the general public. “If it’s public data it should be made available to the public,” says Gleeson. “All this data comes from our taxes, so we should all have access to it.”

Although Gleeson rates highly the detailed information collected by the Central Statistics Office – “one of the best agencies internationally” – he says that other Government bodies could do far more. “Unemployment information comes from the census every five years, and the live-register data comes out every month, but the Department of Social Protection [has a database of the] age, gender, address and previous employment of everyone on the live register but doesn’t do anything with it. It’s just stuck there. It’s wasted.

“We have just worked with Southside Partnership and Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council on a research project to show the value of what it could do if it [managed and mapped] this information. Now the council can actually see what’s going on on a quarterly basis and on an almost neighbourhood level.”

Having received funding from the cross-Border European organisation Interreg – hence the “All Island” in the title – and the HEA, Airo is currently seeking additional funding. Gleeson articulates the need for a data-collection strategy. “There’s still no national strategy for collecting information and spatial data.”

Ultimately, the correct data, clearly mapped, could make infrastructural and service deficits more apparent and decision-making processes more transparent. Gleeson says this approach could make contentious decisions, such as where to place a new children’s hospital, much more straightforward. “While politicians and Ministers talk about evidence-informed planning,” says Gleeson, “I suppose the question is whether they really want it.”

In a political system that thrives on local prejudice and clientelism, letting clear, understandable data speak for itself might not be quite as appealing for some as letting complicated and confusing data fit an existing narrative.

Pictures of Ireland: Travel times to 24-hour emergency hospitals

The hospital access map, created by the Airo team, provides an insight into the all-island distribution of services. At 18 minutes, the average travel times to strategic health services such as emergency hospitals in Northern Ireland are lower than in the Republic, where they are 24 minutes. In cities and urban areas average access is approximately 15 minutes. In regions such as Monaghan, Omagh, Tipperary North, Leitrim, Clare and Roscommon travel times are far worse, and in many areas along the western seaboard the travel times are well in excess of an hour. - Justin Gleeson Airo

Distribution of holy wells

This map shows the distribution of officially recorded holy wells in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, taken from the Sites and Monuments Record of the Archaeological Survey of Ireland. The official number is 3,109: 2,940 in the Republic and 169 in the North.

The map shows a number of interesting clusters and gaps. The Dingle peninsula has lots of holy wells, while the coastal wells of Connemara are also evident. Cos Clare, Limerick and south Wexford also have concentrations of holy wells.

The gaps are in part accounted for by topography, with relatively few wells on land over 200m. One might expect to see more wells in the traditionally Gaelicised west of Ireland. Though generally a rural phenomenon, wells survive in urban areas, including Dublin, Limerick and Galway. St Patrick’s well is an unlikely feature of Trinity College Dublin.

Many holy wells are ploughed over, filled in, overgrown or lost. Many others are on private land. Yet what keeps the wells alive are the local practices and the pattern days still held around the key times of the Celtic calendar: Imbolc, Bealtaine, Lúnasa and Samhain. The tradition is kept alive by local and international adherents: traditional Catholics; less orthodox spiritual groups; artists; and the public. - Dr Ronan Foley Department of geography, NUI Maynooth

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