Spatial Information Systems – Overwhelming concept or invaluable conservation tool?

Mention the term Spatial Information Systems (SIS) to many a biologist or ecologist and you may get a blank look or even worse a look of terror. For many of us the extent of our knowledge and interaction with SIS has been with Google Maps, but it is much more. SIS contributes to a range of sectors including mining, fisheries, forestries, health and transport on a daily basis. In fact, almost every industry and sector can benefit in their planning and decision making from using these spatial information tools. Dr Alana Grech and Dr Michael Chang from Macquarie University’s Department of Environment and Geography spoke to the Biology department this month about some of the research they have been doing with SIS. What is exciting is the value that spatial information can contribute to biologists in assisting with research and with key issues such as conservation and environmental management.

As Dr Chang explained, Spatial Information is the science of Global Information Systems (GIS) and remote sensing for data storage, visualisation (via mapping) and information. Spatial data can be biophysical, geographic, economic or social, and powerful tools are used to model, analyse and visualise this data to improve our understanding, decision-making and communication. Spatial information can have a direct impact on productivity. NSW Ambulance, the third largest ambulance service in the world, provides an excellent example of how these tools are used. As they are required to provide a response every 27 seconds, decision-making and communication must happen rapidly. By enabling vehicles with GPS and using a command centre which has up-to-date information on roads, hospitals and availability, operators can identify the nearest vehicle and communicate quickest routes and estimated arrival times to the ambulance drivers and hospitals respectively. By layering this with information on incident hotspots, they can also undertake proactive planning for key times such as Friday and Saturday nights (NSW Government 2012).

So how does SIS assist in adding value to biology, ecology and conservation management?  Dr Chang explained that SIS can be used across the terrestrial environment to map layers on vegetation, topography and species distribution (figure 1).

Figure 1. Example of layers that may be utilised for understanding the distribution of a terrestrial species using SIS (from

Using an example from the CSIRO, Chang demonstrated how these tools have been used to map pasture from space so that farmers can accurately estimate available feed as well as understand rates of pasture growth and quality. The Australian National Parks & Wildlife Service has also used SIS across National Parks to understand the landscape, vegetation and historical fire patterns in order to develop management plans (Haines-Young et al. 2003).

SIS can be extended to the marine environment and Dr Grech demonstrated how spatial information on dugong populations was used to prioritise conservation initiatives in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. Challenges are presented when assessing species over such broad scales and it can be difficult to understand where to focus conservation measures. Using information collected via aerial surveys and applying geostatistical techniques, a spatial population model of dugong distribution and abundance was developed to prioritise ‘hotspots’ for dugong conservation (figure 2). This information was in turn used as an effective component of the decision-making process and was used to support the management of dugongs in the area.

Dugong Model

Figure 2. Map showing dugong relative density, which was developed using aerial surveys and geostatistical techniques (from Grech & Marsh 2007)

Where SIS can really shine, however, is through the mapping of cumulative pressures. Grech explained that key to effective management of Marine Park Areas, such as the Great Barrier Reef, is having a good understanding of what is being protected and the activities that impact on them. Mapping geographical areas and associated species distribution and then layering pressures such as pollution, anthropogenic activities, abrasion and erosion can provide a cumulative impact map. These maps allow us to identify hotspots and risk areas that can be used to drive conservation efforts. These tools not only provide biologists with valuable information for research and conservation priorities, but also give us the means to communicate our research beyond the realm of the science community. It helps us to add value to biological sciences and transition to real world management applications, something that is important in a time when the communication of science to the broader population is vital.

The Cooperative Research Centre Program, an Australian Government initiative, suggests that we can expect a significant increase in benefits to both environment and economy as SIS is integrated into the operation of carbon markets, natural resource management and monitoring programs more generally (CRCSI 2014). It seems the capability and potential for these tools are limitless, and as technology and hardware improves the question is where to next and what is the potential? Will there be the ability to provide instantaneous information that allows our policy and decision makers to make ‘on-the-ground’ decisions or will we be able to use these tools more effectively to assist with rapid response to natural disasters such as fires, floods and cyclones?

Cooperative Research Centre for Spatial Information (2013) What is Sptial Information? Accessed 21 April 2014

CSIRO Australia (2014). Pastures from Space. Accessed 20 April 2014.

Grech, A. & Marsh, H. (2007)  Prioritising areas for dugong conservation in a marine protected area using a spatially explicit population model, Applied GIS, 3(2): 1-14.

Haines-Young, R., Green, D. R., & Cousins, S. H. (Eds.). (2003). Landscape ecology and geographical information systems. Taylor & Francis, London.

NSW Government (2012), Accessed 20 April 2014






About loutosetto

A research masters student currently studying at Macquarie University. My interests are in coastal marine ecosystems. I like the interaction between the urban and the marine environments and the specialised environments that the fauna have evolved to survive in such variable environments.
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