Pictured is O'Connor Park, the clubgrounds of Valentia Young Islanders.
Pictured is O'Connor Park, the clubgrounds of Valentia Young Islanders.

GAA using technology to tackle rural decline

By John Harrington

The GAA is ready to roll out a ground-breaking Geographic Information System (GIS) it hopes can help address the huge challenge posed by Ireland’s population shift from rural to urban areas.

Rural GAA clubs are struggling to field teams because they just don’t have the numbers, while urban GAA clubs have issues catering for the surging populations in their catchment areas.

The first of those increasingly problematic issues reared its head again last week when Valentia Young Islanders announced they wouldn’t be able to field a senior team this year and requested help from the South Kerry board to find a club they could amalgamate with at senior level.

This trend is likely only going to accelerate in the coming years, but clubs and county boards will soon be in a position where they can anticipate these problems and plan for remedies rather than belatedly react to them.

That’s thanks to a significant body of work carried out by the GAA’s Community Development, Urban and Rural committee chaired by Colm Cummins.

As part of their work they have developed a GIS with Future Analytics that collates all demographic data relevant to GAA clubs from the Central Statistics Office, the Department of Education and equivalent bodies in the six counties.

This will allow clubs and counties to know the birth-rate and population in their catchment area, how many players they have in their club at any one time at all age-groups, and what the participation rate is compared to the overall population in those age-groups.

The GAA's Geographic Information System (GIS) can show a club what percentage of each group in their catchment area are members of their teams at all age-groups. 
The GAA's Geographic Information System (GIS) can show a club what percentage of each group in their catchment area are members of their teams at all age-groups. 

The value of this information is obvious. For example, if a club knows that the birth-rate in its catchment has plummeted over a sustained period of time they’ll know they need to start planning now for possibly amalgamating with an another club at underage level in order to ensure the children in their catchment area will have a team to play with.

The GIS has been successfully piloted in four counties - Kerry, Westmeath, Roscommon, and Tyrone – and now the plan is to roll it out to the 28 remaining counties, a process that will be spearheaded by the GAA’s Education Officer, Peter Horgan, and part-funded by the Sport Ireland Dormant Accounts Fund.

The timing is serendipitous, because the GIS can now be synced with ‘Foireann’, the GAA’s recently launched new Games Management System which tracks club registration and playing numbers among many other features.

This means it will be possible to continue updating the data on the GIS on a live basis.

“For the pilot counties it was done with a questionnaire sent out to each club and that was completed by all clubs and sent back to the counties and uploaded and analysed,” Peter Horgan told GAA.ie.

“That's obviously just a snapshot in time, so if we had gotten every county on board in 2020 we would just have had the 2020 data. 2021, 2022 and 2023 comes around quickly and if we gathered the data like we did for the pilot counties it would be a very labour intensive process each time.

“What we want to happen is that the new Foireann system would be able to update the GIS project more or less on a live basis.

“So, as clubs register their members and so on, that data would feed straight into the GIS which would mean that it's live as in we'd be able to see how the progress of the registration system is going, but also it would be consistently updated so we wouldn't have to do the survey of clubs each year.

“It would just be a case that as clubs update their Foireann system each year that would automatically update the GIS system and we would build up a picture over a period of time.

“Whereas you can imagine that if you were issuing a questionnaire to clubs every year it would get quite monotonous for everybody involved and quite difficult to build up that longitudinal approach to it.

“At the moment we're working with Colm and his committee who are finishing up on a formal hand-over. But we're also looking at how we can progress their work over the rest of this year.

“We're going to try to roll out the GIS to as many of the 28 counties as we can while focusing on maybe four to eight counties at a time.

“Future Analytics are our partner is this project so they will assist us in uploading all that material to the GIS system and that obviously takes a bit of time and a bit of preparation work needs to go on in order for data from any individual county to be uploaded to the system and then to be utilised.

“So we'll be working with them on doing that over the coming months. At the same time we'll be gathering information from counties and clubs around the country so we'll be able to do this as seamlessly as we can.”

The overview of Westmeath's clubs and playing numbers on the GAA's Geographic Information System (GIS).
The overview of Westmeath's clubs and playing numbers on the GAA's Geographic Information System (GIS).

The GIS is a very powerful tool that can be harnessed to provide the GAA with all sorts of valuable information.

In the pilot counties it focused on the number of players active in a club and the participation rates in relation to the population in those catchment areas, but the possibilities are endless.

For example, it could also quickly illustrate how many coaches are active in each club, what level they are qualified to, and what age-grades they are working with.

Knowledge is power, but only if you put it to good use, and Horgan agrees how the GAA uses the information it collates will be just as critical as collecting it in the first place.

“In a lot of cases the GIS is really going to give us data for what is happening, but we're going to have to interrogate that information to understand the hows and whys of it," he says.

“We'll know a lot more about club numbers and population trends, we need to work on understanding what is happening that causes these numbers, what could assist clubs and how do we progress that.

“How do we apply the information and knowledge we glean to policy change and potentially rule change within the organisation?

“I think you can guarantee that it won't be a one size fits all solution.

"There's no two counties the same or even two clubs the same. That's why it's a little bit dangerous just going with raw numbers and information and not looking into the hows and whys of these things.

“I think it is an important job and as an organisation I think we're becoming far more aware of the types of information that we have and how that might be useful to us in organising ourselves into best doing our business.

“There's a lot of work involved in it. The four pilot counties that we had, there was a huge amount of things that we learned in working with those four pilot counties which will make the next step a little bit more manageable.

“How we go about bringing the next 28 on board will be important. I think there will be good buy-in from clubs because I think the four counties that have been involved in the pilot will see the benefits from the information that they are getting.

“It's going to be a tough process but I think it's something that when we look back on in three or four years time when we have the live information that we're going to see huge benefits from having a longitudinal approach to what we're doing instead of just having a snapshot from a single survey in a single year.”

Tyrone's population pyramid for 2016 on the pilot phase of the GAA's Geographic Information System (GIS). 
Tyrone's population pyramid for 2016 on the pilot phase of the GAA's Geographic Information System (GIS). 

As well as piloting the GIS in Kerry, Westmeath, Tyrone, and Roscommon, the Community Development, Urban and Rural committee chaired by Colm Cummins has also put considerable thought into how best use the information it has collated in those counties.

Cummins believes the continued population shift from rural to urban areas will require the GAA to be open-minded about player eligibility to ensure that many rural clubs don’t go out of existence in the coming years.

“We would suggest that we have to begin to introducing some element of flexibility to cater for the modern world and the way it works,” Cummins told GAA.ie

“I think, we've just discussed this at a casual level, that you feel like the Association is maturing a bit and we don't have to be as strict in relation to eligibility rules if we could trust people to do the right thing.

“There may be a bit of flexibility where a lad is, for example, living and working in Tralee and plays away with a club in Tralee but then could also get sanctioned for particular periods to go back and play championship with his home club in a rural part of Kerry or a club he has a connection with if they were under pressure.

“The data would be there to say that a club like Valentia had only 12 registered players so, yes, we'll allow them an additional 10 sanctioned players from outside.

“So, things like that, and they have been introduced previously in different ways such as weekend sanctions to go to play in the USA, et cetera. So we have precedents there.

“It would help if we were able to introduce things like that to cater for the changing environment. It would be a terrible shame to let any other club go out of existence if there was a way of keeping it there.

“They might just need to get over the hump for a couple of years, they might need that bit of flexibility just to keep the thing going and the numbers might show that some new families have moved into the area and in ten years the club could be back on its feet.

“Again, it goes back to having the data and knowing that. Then you can make those informed calls which would be the important piece.

“The question is whether are people are open to change, and I think they are. People will have to ask themselves would you rather introduce that flexibility or see these small clubs go out of existence.

“To me, it would be about keeping our spread of clubs as we have them or even increase it. We should be increasing them as the population is growing and looking at new clubs in urban areas, but as a minimum we should hold what we have and that means introducing flexibility.”

A visual display of Valentia Young Islanders' playing numbers at all age-groups on the GAA's Geographic Information System (GIS). 
A visual display of Valentia Young Islanders' playing numbers at all age-groups on the GAA's Geographic Information System (GIS). 

Valentia are a topical case-study and suggest there’s a lot of merit in Cummins line of thinking.

They don’t have enough players right now to field a senior team, but if they could provide an outlet for what senior players they do have through an amalgamation for the next few years, then further down the road they may be in a position to field a senior team of their own again.

That’s what the data collated by the pilot phase of the GIS suggests at least, because Valentia have 45 registered players from U-10 to U-14 level who could provide the numbers required to field a senior team in the not too distant future.

What’s for certain is that clubs and county boards in the coming years are going to have to be open-minded about such possibilities because the core issue is not going away, there will always be a natural move towards urbanisation in this country.

“In fact, if anything, the rate of change is probably going to accelerate on two fronts,” says Cummins.

“One is what was happening already in terms of the natural move towards urbanisation.

“Another area that our group looked at over the duration of its term was planning policy and who the GAA should interact with planning policy.

“We're lucky we had former minister Noel Dempsey on our committee and Noel did some great work in putting that together.

“We sent out a lot of advice to clubs in terms of interacting with our county development plans. There is a big move within the county development plans because they now must be consistent with national policy.

“And the national policy is dictating that for sustainable settlements they must be clustered. The day of single one-off housing is at its end.

“What we're saying is that there's an opportunity here for the GAA that if counties and clubs engage correctly with the system, then we can push that development towards existing facilities.

“So, if there is going to be a cluster of housing in a rural area, then let it be around the GAA pitch. That's one aspect we're looking at.”

Ireland’s transformation from a largely rural society to an urban one presents a huge challenge for the GAA.

But there is surely some encouragement to be drawn from the fact that the wit and the will exists within the Association to address it.