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Computer Platform Gives Visibility to Catalonia's Small Villages

Date: 2020-06-03


A research team from the UAB, in collaboration with the Association of Microvillages of Catalonia, has created a Geographic Information System (GIS) for Active and Sustainable Hamlets (GISASH), which gathers information on the state of and services offered by the more than 330 municipalities in Catalonia with fewer than 500 inhabitants.

An interdisciplinary research team from the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB) has developed GISASH (Geographic Information System for Active and Sustainable Hamlets). This new online platform, which is free and openly accessible, offers information on the characteristics and the variety of services and resources available in small villages with fewer than 500 inhabitants. This type of places can be found across inland Catalonia.

Catalonia currently has 336 small villages, representing close to 35% of the territory and 35% of all municipalities, but in which less than 2% of the population lives, according to 2016 data from the National Statistics Institute. Created in a multi-participatory manner, nearly 20% of the small villages in 25 counties collaborated in this first edition of the GIS.

GISASH was developed by members of the Department of Geography, the Institute for Environmental Science and Technology (ICTA) and the Laboratory of Geographic Information and Remote Sensing (LIGIT), all three from the UAB. Also collaborating were the Association of Microvillages of Catalonia and other organisations related to rural issues. The application has been developed as part of the research project “HAMLETS. Immigration and Sustainable Development in Small Villages”, funded by Obra Social “la Caixa” with the collaboration of the Association of Public Universities of Catalonia (ACUP).

With a very visual representation, the new GIS website makes the small villages more visible by innovatively including a set of various data supply sources, which are then geographically represented. This makes it an effective consultation tool for those interested in living there, as well as for the administrators of these same municipalities and those politically and technically in charge of different regional areas.

“What previous research tells us is that new city people arriving to small villages looking to settle down may not succeed due to a lack of information on aspects such as available resources or facilities, relative isolation and limited working options; not to mention cold temperatures and solitude in winter in many of the mountain municipalities. In contrast, people from other rural areas in different countries learn to fit in very well, because they may know what kind of work and life awaits them. In both cases, having access to complete, clear and visually and spatially represented information on the small villages of choice can contribute to favouring the chances for success of a project of such vital importance," says Ricard Morén-Alegret, UAB tenured lecturer from the Department of Geography, associate researcher at the ICTA and Principal Investigator of the HAMLETS project.

Population, Schools, Social Projects and Work Types

At the moment, the GISASH feeds off five databases. One of them is made up of an informative file created by the research team based on surveys conducted with mayors, councillors and administrators [the current version displays data from the 2017 survey]. Each file contains important information on daily life, such as the facilities and services available in each village (schools, libraries, sports facilities, etc.), types of jobs available, local associations and organisations, housing available, social and environmental projects, etc.

It also includes four databases on public statistics with information represented through graphics and thematic maps, which can be stored and printed out by users:

- IDESCAT, with a dynamic connection facilitating access to permanently updated information on human population and migration, economics and employment, society and culture, as well as habitat and the environment.

- INE, with data on resident population and their evolution from 2006 to 2016.

- EUROSTAT, with data on Europe's population at local level (1961-2011), since the line of research behind this project aims to be able to apply it soon at European level and with that in mind already includes parts of Southern France and the border region of Northern Ireland.

- CORINE Land Cover of the European Environment Agency (EEA), which offers information on the use of land (agricultural, forestry, urban, etc.) and its evolution (1990–2012).

The GIS also allows users to pose a variety of statistical questions, based on a basic block of population movements.

“This geographic information system is a very useful professional and consultation tool for local administrations. Not only because it systematises the data and offers visual representations, so that we can provide quick, broad and precise answers to citizens seeking information on our municipality. Also because it allows us to adapt better to their needs”, points out Maria Carme Freixa, President of the Association of Microvillages of Catalonia and Mayor of Vallfogona del Ripollès (Girona province). “At the same time, it helps you get a picture of the diverse reality existing behind the term 'microvillage', and demonstrates that these types of municipalities exist throughout the country.

Basic Platform for Research into Microvillages

The new GIS web will allow the team of researchers more agility in the exploitation and analysis of data included in the platform, basics for the success of the HAMLETS project. For example, they will be able to delve more deeply into the reality and diversity of Catalonia's small villages, establish tendencies in population movements and, finally, recommend lines of action and policies in favour of their subsistence.

In this sense, the team will continue to work towards including more municipalities and finding ways to guarantee the application continues to work beyond the finalisation of the project funded by the RecerCaixa Programme, which is set for the first trimester of 2020.

Worth highlighting is the innovation at European level proposed by a system with the characteristics of GISASH. “Currently, there is no free and openly accessible platform for the study and management of small villages in Europe. Now, the technology has already been created and we must focus on increasing the number of municipalities participating and slowly add information to the databases”, highlights LIGIT Director Miquel Àngel Vargas and Head Technician Ignacio Ferrero.

“The system we have created will contribute to giving more visibility to the small villages of Catalonia and highlighting their value. Sometimes these types of municipalities are as close as a human settlement can get to a ghost place and, therefore, must be taken into careful consideration, especially those located further away from metropolitan areas or the coast, with the aim of avoiding the population depletion affecting other parts of Spain”, concludes Ricard Morén.

About The HAMLETS Project

The “HAMLETS. Immigration and Sustainable Development in Small Villages” project aims to research human geography, sustainability and the «to be or not to be» debate in the villages of Catalonia with fewer than 500 inhabitants. The Association of Microvillages of Catalonia actively participates in the project.

The main hypothesis of this project is that both local and international migration can be a potential for the social, economic, environmental and cultural contribution to a sustainable development of many small villages.

The global results of the project will serve to discover how to improve the arrival and settlement of migrants to the small villages, to establish actions by implementing sustainable development initiatives and to help municipalities with the arrival and settlement of newcomers with innovative solutions such as the already up and running GIS website.

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