Lie of land goes virtual

29 Jan 2004

A newly integrated mapping system is helping the Department of Agriculture and Food process claims more efficiently and is streamlining the relationship between the department and farmers all over Ireland.

The new system, dubbed iMap, was supplied by main contractor Accenture and uses technology from Oracle and sub-contractor E-Spatial. It is an integrated mapping and payment system, explains Philip O’Reilly, assistant secretary and director of IT at the Department of Agriculture and Food. “It provides integration between all the spatial elements involved in claims and applications for aid.”

The spatial elements are made up of different layers including maps from the Ordnance Survey of Ireland, a vector layer showing administrative boundaries and orthophotography — aerial photography corrected to remove distortion. According to O’Reilly, the most active layer, however, is the parcel layer that shows the various parcels of land. “These layers are now all stored on top of one another in a single dataset,” he says.

The same database also stores details of the grants or subsidies that each farmer has applied for including all documentation in support of the claim and any other correspondence. “When we send out a letter, the PDF is stored in the database. If we receive correspondence, it is scanned and a JPEG image is stored,” explains O’Reilly.

The principal benefit of the new system, according to O’Reilly, is integrity. “If you change something in relation to a parcel of land, for instance if you move a boundary, the system automatically recalculates the area and that is reflected in the claim. Similarly, if you move a boundary and it overlaps someone else’s land, an alert warns the operator. That integration is very important. It is much less cumbersome and gives a more effective workflow. If there is a need to correspond with a farmer, we can generate a standard letter that automatically includes the spatial data.”

The other advantage is that no special hardware or software is required. “The previous system required a workstation element. If we wanted someone to have access in, say, Galway, we would have had to install hardware and software in that office and the operator would require a certain degree of familiarity with the software. Now, however, we are using web-based technology and the information can be viewed throughout the organisation using a standard desktop browser,” he says.

By using internet standards, the department can now give farmers direct access to their own data. “Farmers can register from home through our central online registration system for this and any other electronic service we might offer in the future,” says O’Reilly. “The farmer receives a unique PIN code and can then log onto the system to view their application, the spatial data relating to their claim, and print out their own maps at home.”

Migrating from the old system to the new one was no easy task. Previously, the different spatial elements were stored separately from claims processing information. “We had claims processing on the mainframe while the spatial data was held on an Oracle database with a proprietary application and workstation on top,” he continues. “We had to download the resulting data to the mainframe on batch basis. This gave greater scope for operator error. The new system is very strict on validation so errors are spotted immediately. For instance, if someone digitises a map and the boundaries don’t match, the operator is flagged. In addition, the reporting is based on real-time spatial data. There is no delay between spatial data being updated and the claim being updated.”

What all of this means is that claims can be processed more efficiently. “We always aim to pay claims as early as possible,” says O’Reilly, “and legally we can’t pay out money to farmers any earlier than we do. But with the new system, the amount of labour will be reduced. We can also be surer of meeting EU commitments and of the accuracy of the data. Getting that done sooner gives us greater scope for carrying out inspections. In addition, if there is a problem with a particular case, it can be resolved much more quickly.”

The new system will also play a key role in facilitating the switch to a new payment regime that is scheduled to come into effect this year under the terms of the CAP review. “Over the coming year, we will have to calculate an entitlement under the new regime. This entitlement will be related to land so this is an important base on which to build. In fact, if we didn’t have iMap we would not be able to attempt the switch in the required timescale,” adds O’Reilly.

By David Stewart