[Friends of the Earth]

Susan Pipes

GIS at Friends of the Earth: Your Right to Know

Friends of the Earth is one of the most influential campaigning organisations in the UK. GIS technology has been utilised by Friends of the Earth as a tool for environmental campaigning for the past six years. Its success has culminated in the launch of a mapping interface for the Chemical Release Inventory on the World Wide Web. It was the aim of this campaign to highlight the deficiencies in environmental data provision, despite the existence of both European and British legislation to promote access to information. In many instances this is because the UK's Government policies override and contradict the freedom of access legislation. There should be recognition of the utilisation being made of the requested data, which is not always for a commercial motive. Also the Government must do more than pay lip-service to environmental information provision in order to inform and empower the individual.

"Never doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world,
indeed it is the only thing that ever has." Margaret Mead, Social Anthropologist.

This paper is dedicated to Andrew Lees who died in 1995 while investigating the proposed RTZ mining scheme in Southern Madagascar. It was Andrew's vision of electronic maps displaying environmental information to empower individuals which led to Friends of the Earth's commitment to GIS. He was and remains a true inspiration.

Friends of the Earth (FOE) is one of the UK's most influential environmental campaigning organisations, renowned for the rigorous research which supports its campaign agendas. There are member organisations in 54 countries world wide and over 250 local groups throughout England, Wales and Northern Ireland. As a result FOE provides an effective environmental campaigning network at the international, national and local level. FOE campaigns for the basic rights people need in order to protect their environment - the right to know, the right to act and the right to seek redress.

FOE has been using spatial analysis as a tool for environmental campaigning since 1990. This paper will trace the evolution of GIS at Friends of the Earth up to our latest developments on the Internet. However, the continued successful implementation of GIS at FOE will not be reliant upon the latest ArcInfo technical development of 3D or temporal analysis. FOE's GIS work will be driven by the issue at the core of many of the campaigns, and that is providing access to public information to empower and inspire the individual. A review of the present legislation is presented and its weaknesses are discussed, concluding with recommendations for providing real access to environmental data.

GIS at Friends of the Earth

In 1991 Andrew Lees, the late Campaigns Director, spoke at the Esri (UK) User Conference, announcing the implementation of GIS at Friends of the Earth. He admitted to the conference that FOE's first attempt at spatial analysis was "as crude as it was effective"!

At the time, FOE was running a campaign on contaminated land in the UK, with the aim of revealing the shoddy practices of the waste management industry. Using a customised version of AutoRoute, a system designed for road route planning, national maps of "Toxic Tips" were produced. In conjunction with the Observer (a UK Sunday broadsheet) readers were offered their own local map showing tips in their vicinity by sending their postcode to FOE. The response was staggering. Over 10,000 maps were distributed within two weeks.

Amidst this feverish activity a seed was planted and the search began for an environmental GIS. Within months Jack Dangermond at Esri had been contacted. Under the Esri Conservation Program, and the practical support of Charles Convis, Friends of the Earth placed an order for ArcInfo version 6. FOE's achievements are indebted to both Dangermond and Convis, along with many other environmental organisations who are supported by the Esri Conservation Program.

Now, six years on, the Environmental Data Unit at FOE is well established and employs two full time posts supported by two volunteer staff. The Unit is responsible for the acquisition, verification, management, analysis, and display of FOE's environmental datasets. It is without question that ArcInfo 7 and ArcView 2.1 (running on Sun Sparc stations) are the Unit's most valuable tools, particularly when their functionality is combined with Oracle RDBMS and the Internet. As a consequence of Esri's support and FOE's strategic commitment to GIS, there have been many significant successes utilising this technology, including:

1990a landfill sites dataset, where dangerous substances had been detected, was combined with NRA groundwater supplies to identify public water supplies at risk from contamination at a national and local scale.
1991a major analysis of drinking water quality in South-East England was undertaken, revealing illegally high levels of pesticides in 70% of the Thames Water's supply zones.
1992the NRA's surface water quality data was measured against the European Union (EU) Directives on Dangerous Substances and Freshwater Fisheries, highlighting hundreds of breaches.
1993focused on Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) threatened with destruction by the Government's National Roads Programme, and the 600 SSSIs at risk from acid rain damage caused by "dirty" power stations.
1994monitoring hourly averages of air pollution in the UK and highlighting the poor compliance with World Health Organisation and EU guidelines for air quality standards.
1995launched the Chemical Release Inventory public register, maintained by the Environment Agency, on the World Wide Web.

The maturing of GIS technology at FOE has resulted in some changes in the focus of our work. The Unit now provides a bureau service to each of the campaign teams, rather than trying to teach individual campaigners obtuse ArcInfo commands. Furthermore, by learning from experience the Unit's strategy is no longer hampered by unquantifiable timescales and unrealistic expectations of the campaigners. However, the most significant factor over the past six years has been the realisation within the organisation that GIS is "more than just maps". GIS is about data.

Without having access to good quality, reliable data at a reasonable cost GIS technology is worthless; a flimsy, colour supplement inadequate to tackle the environmental problems faced by the planet. What progress has been made by the UK Government over the years to ensure that environmental datasets are readily accessible.

Access to Environmental Information

In 1990 the EU Directive for Freedom of Access to Information on the Environment (the Directive) was enacted to:

By June 1991 John Major had made his "global environment" speech in which he claimed the Government had

All the signs for improved access to environmental information were in place, and in 1992 the Directive was implemented in the UK under the Environmental Information Regulations (EIR). This was also the year in which the Rio Earth Summit was held. At Rio it was decreed that "states shall facilitate and encourage awareness and participation by making information widely available".

It gives me pleasure to note that progress has indeed been made. For many years FOE has been campaigning on activities which threaten and destroy Sites of Special Scientific Interest. SSSIs

and as such are "a measure of the health of our countryside" (Langslow, 1993). The national network of over 6,000 SSSIs is maintained by the three country agencies - English Nature, Countryside Council for Wales (CCW) and Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH). At the end of 1995 FOE estimated that of the 6,000 sites 838 were threatened (FOE, 1995).

To further inform and support FOE's campaign, copies of the electronic SSSI boundaries have been requested from each agency over the last eighteen months. Although the requests where made under the EIR there were three very different responses. CCW made its dataset available for a small fee and explicitly stated in their data access policy that the EIR overrides any Government data charging policies; SNH stalled, citing the lack of a formulated policy for data provision under the EIR as the reason for refusal; and English Nature quoted a charge of £24,000.

Recently, however, the situation has improved with SNH now providing the boundaries free of charge, with agreed guidelines for data provision under the EIR. CCW continue to provide a good service for a small charge to cover administrative costs, and English Nature has reduced its charge to just over 1% of the original cost at £227.

However, as Andrew Lees predicted in his conference paper of 1991 "the Government's opened door to environmental information is merely ajar" (Lees, 1991), with the Government still making painfully slow progress in data access provision.

The Chemical Release Inventory: Real Access to Environmental Information

In 1990 the Government launched its environmental strategy by producing "This Common Inheritance" which proclaimed that

In this White Paper the Government made a commitment to improve access to environmental information by making it more widely and readily available.

One example of action taken to improve access was the establishment of the Chemical Release Inventory (CRI) as a public register. Maintained by the Environment Agency (then Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Pollution), the CRI is a database of chemical emissions from monitored industrial sites in England and Wales. Previously the public could access this data in one of two ways: either by visiting one of the eight regional offices by prior arrangement during office hours, or consulting the CRI annual report which is a 500 page summary document containing hundreds of tables of aggregated statistics, with no information to identify individual factories.

FOE disputes the Government's claim that the Chemical Release Inventory improves access to information. This is because the data is not presented in a meaningful way, but is merely a reproduction of statistical data. The data is also held in Government files not readily accessible in practice. Providing true access to information involves the conversion of that data into information by providing an unbiased interpretation of the data to inform the enquirer. The information should be displayed in a way that is easy to understand, and made relevant to the enquirer. The information should also be accessible outside normal office hours.

It was the need to highlight these inadequacies that prompted FOE to publish the Chemical Release Inventory on the World Wide Web (WWW) in October 1995. A mapping interface was designed for the WWW as a window onto the complex database in which the CRI data is stored. By entering a postcode the user generates a customised map, centred on their own home, which identifies the location of their local factories as red dots. Clicking on one of these red dots lists the factory and process number, and displays the level of actual factory emissions alongside the recommended levels authorised by the Government for the years 1991-1994.

The aim of making the CRI available on the WWW was to act as a catalyst to the Government. FOE was able to demonstrate that new technology could be utilised appropriately to provide better access to environmental information. On the WWW the CRI is available 24 hours a day for the price of a local telephone call. The mapping interface is very easy to use by non-experts and refines the query to localised information, cutting a swathe through the weighty statistics. Finally the identification of individual industrial sites places responsibility for the recorded breaches squarely on the shoulders of the polluters.

Publishing the CRI on the WWW does not solve all the problems. There are still many errors contained within the dataset, although it is hoped that public scrutiny will force improved recording procedures. There is not a complete national coverage of sites and processes being monitored by the Government. At those sites which are monitored no attempt is made to measure the "cocktail" effect of a mix of toxic chemical emissions. In fact the CRI probably raises more questions than it actually answers, but these are issues which otherwise would not have been actively discussed.

Testimony of the success of the CRI lies in the number of queries made to our database. Over 16,000 queries about individual factories have been answered in the ten months since the database was launched in October 1995. This figure can be compared against the 760 annual visits to regional offices in 1994/95 (HMIP, 1995). The Environment Agency's own WWW site points to the CRI, stating that FOE have "presented the information in their own style". In addition, FOE was also awarded "Best GIS Web Site" for a non-governmental organisation by GIS World.

Limitations of the Environmental Information Regulations

While the CRI on the WWW has been a successful venture it is not the remit of FOE to act as a public library service. It is FOE's role to highlight the present inadequacies of environmental data provision for the public. In March of this year FOE submitted evidence to the House of Lords European Communities Committee for its inquiry into the implementation of the Directive and the use of the EIR. The submission gave practical evidence of the obstacles FOE has faced when trying to obtain environmental data, despite both the European and British legislation promoting freedom of access.

Reasonable Charges

Over the last five years FOE has been campaigning against the huge costs charged for environmental data, particularly under the Department of Trade & Industry's 'Tradeable Information Initiative'. This policy dictates that data should be viewed as a tradeable commodity. As a result charges made for environmental data have varied widely between different organisations. For instance when requesting Local Authority planning application information where SSSIs were under threat the prices charged ranged from no cost to £62.86 hourly administrative costs.

The Government's Next Steps Policy sets high cost recovery targets for Executive Agencies, which can only be met by charging commercial rates for data provision. An example of this is the pricing policy of the Ordnance Survey (OS). The OS is covered by both the Directive and the EIR and so should be providing data at a reasonable cost. However there is still a huge charge levied on the supply of base environmental data of literally hundreds of thousands of pounds for a copy of the national dataset. According to the evidence submitted by Professor David Rhind, (Chief Executive of the OS) to the House of Lords Committee

Does Professor Rhind doubt the "priority" that needs to be given to environmental protection ?

Both the Tradeable Information Initiative and the Next Steps Policy are Government policies which contradict the EIR and the Directive legislation. The Directive states that charges should only be made on the supply of information and not the collection and production of the datasets, which have often already been previously funded by the tax payer. FOE believe that a pricing structure based on the use on the data is necessary and would in fact stimulate demand for the data product. If a dataset were made available at a reasonable cost this would actually stimulate the market to a greater extent than the present stifled situation of so many organisations being priced out of the market arena. These views are laid out by Wildlife and Countryside link in a paper Who Should Pay for Environmental Information and were put to the Association of Geographic Information (AGI) by FOE last year as part of the national GIS debate on access to information.

Privatisation of Datasets

An increasing number of public agencies, such as British Gas, the Water Service Companies and power generators, have been moved into the private sector under the present Government. Consequently, environmental data is not only being viewed as a commodity, with commercially high prices being charged, but access to that data is being restricted for reasons of commercial confidentiality.

An example of this is the Water Service Companies who claim they do not have direct public responsibility for the environment, and therefore are not covered by the Directive. FOE has made many requests for data to the Water Service Companies under the EIR which have been refused. This is despite these organisations still carrying out public functions and their being custodians of significant environmental datasets. Provision should be made to ensure that datasets remain publicly accessible at the time of privatisation.


There are two systems of copyright operating on Government data - Crown copyright and Parliamentary copyright. The data provider may also impose their own copyright restrictions on a dataset. While this does not directly prevent access to datasets, it does bar FOE from disseminating environmental information to a wider audience. A further disincentive to using OS data is the copyright charge imposed on each hard copy of a map reproduced. This becomes an expensive issue for just one single mailing to our 200,000 members. Copyright restrictions also prevent FOE from publishing datasets on the Internet, as organisations are unduly wary of losing control over their datasets.

It is not only FOE who have encountered problems with the implementation of the Directive and EIR in the UK. According to an ENDS report of the House of Lords findings "only the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) has backed the Government line that the regime is satisfactory". That is strong feedback indeed for the Government, echoing FOE's calls for an improvement in the provision of environmental data.


Despite there being legislation at both a national and European level which promotes free access to environmental datasets, the situation in the UK is still dictated by secrecy and over pricing. Public accessibility to environmental information is in practice still confined to a small group of individuals who have the knowledge and expertise to be able to ask for a specific piece of information following the formal procedures in order to overcome the petty bureaucracy surrounding these issues. This is certainly not the ethos contained within the spirit of the Directive.

The biggest problem within the UK is that Government policies for cost recovery and privatisation are being given priority over and above the national and European legislation. This is despite governmental policies having no legally enforceable status. The UK Government needs to take on board the results of the House of Lords inquiry and ensure that real access to environmental information is available to the public rather than merely paying lip-service to the idea.

If we are to generate change, the GIS community must be pro-active in keeping these issues live and carrying them forward. The spirit of the Directive and EIR is clear, the public has a right to know about environmental information and it is the Governments responsibility to ensure that public is informed on environmental issues. The Chemical Release Inventory offers one solution for providing better access to information and there are countless others. If the GIS community accepts the status quo then access to national datasets will decline, GIS research will lose its value because only limited datasets will be available and, most importantly, the protection of our environment will be compromised. We cannot let this happen. The GIS community needs to exert its own right to know.


Esri Conservation Programme for their assistance in providing free access to the Esri software.

Esri (UK) for their help in supporting the work of Friends of the Earth.

Sun Microsystems for donating a Sun Sparc 20 machine for our Internet server.


ENDS Report (1996) 'Groups hit out over access to information regime' Report no 256

English Nature (1992) 'What You Should Know About SSSIs'

Friends of the Earth (1995 'Losing Interest A survey of threats to SSSIs in England & Wales'

Government White Paper (1992) ' This Common Inheritance' HMSO

HMIP (1995) 'Annual Report' HMSO

Joint Information Policy Group (1995) 'Who Should Pay for Environmental Data?' Wildlife & Countryside LINK

Langslow D (1993) Planning 19/2/1993

Lees A (1991) 'The Potential for GIS in Solving Environmental Problems' Esri UK User Conference Paper

Major J (1991) 'Global Environment speech' Sunday Times Conference

A copy of this paper is available at


Susan Pipes
Environmental Data Unit Manager
Friends of the Earth
26-28 Underwood Street
N1 7JQ

tel        0171 490 1555
fax       0171 490 0881
email    susanp@foe.co.uk
url       http://www.foe.co.uk