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Researching the ‘most pressing’ issues of our time

Research activities at Ulster University’s Centre for Environmental Spatial Data Analytics spans six continents, 31 countries, three oceans, and Mars

Research activities at Ulster University’s Centre for Environmental Spatial Data Analytics (CESDA) span six continents, 31 countries, three oceans, and Mars. The new centre will launch shortly following a £1 million (€1.16 million) investment in cutting edge facilities at Ulster University’s Coleraine campus.

“Our research is focused within two clusters, one for environmental processes, management and sustainability, and the other researching heritage, conflict and society,” says Cesda research director Professor Paul Dunlop. “Our researchers are committed to providing answers to some of the most pressing geographical and environmental issues of our time including climate change, sustainably, poverty, conflict, and health.”

The involvement with the European Space Agency ExoMars mission attracted global attention. “Professor Derek Jackson was able to transfer knowledge of how sand gets moved around here on Earth to Mars. It will be used to help guide the Rosalind Franklin Mars rover to ensure that it doesn’t get buried under a sand dune or have to drill through metres of sand to get samples.”

Back here on Earth, Cesda researchers are working on projects from the Arctic to the equator. “We are working in glaciated regions, mountain regions, and the oceans, we have a very, very big outreach,” says Dunlop. “We are trying to understand the drivers of climate change; how are ice sheets going to react to a warming world? We have a PhD project looking at glaciers in the Arctic. We have our own research vessel for near shore work which uses advanced mapping technology to understand what’s happening on the seabed.”


The centre’s core aim is to look at real world problems and produce solutions that benefit society. “We have a team of scientists who are using digital satellite data to map archaeological resources in maritime regions around the Mediterranean,” he adds. “We are looking at how to preserve them and protect them from risks such as conflict, climate change, development and so on.”

Very aptly, Cesda researchers also did work on fuel poverty in Northern Ireland. “We used digital spatial analysis to find the areas which are suffering most,” he explains. “This helps to target homes in most need for insulation measures. This has resulted in millions of pounds of funding being directed at those properties with benefits including improved comfort and enhanced physical and mental wellbeing for the people living in them.”

He points to the ready transferability of that research. “That type of research could be rolled out almost anywhere in the world. It could help target home retrofitting supports to where they are most needed in the Republic of Ireland, for example. We do blue skies research as well. We try to understand how environmental systems work, and how conflict resolution works.”

The centre’s work on the geography of conflict and peace-building focuses on the spatial politics of divided societies as well as how this interfaces with contested environments, migration and mobility.

One project funded by the Northern Ireland Executive and a UK research council looked at how tourism can be a significant driver of peace in societies emerging from conflict. The project works alongside communities in three interface neighbourhoods in Northern Ireland to develop tourism initiatives around heritage and conflict-related sites.

The £1 million investment programme will see the development of a range of new facilities including laboratories, a landing space on bank of River Bann to enable the research vessel to sail out to sea from the Coleraine campus, and a new high-performance computer to run the analytics on the massive data sets utilised by Cesda researchers.

This will enable researchers to build on an established reputation for excellence. “Every seven years, UK universities have to go through a Research Excellence Framework (REF) to evaluate the standard of their research,” Dunlop points out. “In the latest review in 2021, an outstanding 88 per cent of our research has been judged as world-leading or internationally excellent.”

In addition, 100 per cent of its impact case studies were judged as having outstanding or very considerable impacts in terms of their reach and significance while 83.7 per cent of its research outputs have been judged as world-leading or internationally excellent in terms of originality, significance and rigour.

“The future is to keep answering the big questions facing society,” he says. “It’s OK to have aspirations to do that but you need the human resources and academic expertise to do it. We have that here at the university, but you need infrastructure as well. We now have that thanks to the latest investment. We can use our facilities to bring research teams together to answer those big questions. It’s a great opportunity for other universities in Ireland and elsewhere to come to work with us.”