The Application of UK Web-Based GIS in Geography Teaching

Article excerpt

Peter O'Connor raises teacher awareness of the developments in web-based GIS in the UK, in particular focusing on webbased GIS resources that provide students with greater opportunities to analyse and examine critically the nature of spatial data.


There have been significant and rapid advances in the availability of webb as ed GIS in schools over the last few years. The development of GI S -based resources and virtual globes like Google Earth (, Windows Local Live ( and NASA's World Wind (http :// have provided schools with detailed mapping and near- glob al coverage of satellite imagery and aerial photography for free. While these resources provide excellent visual representations of the places we study in schools, they are limited in their scope as there is not much opportunity to process spatial data, thus not maximising the time in lessons given to the skills of GIS use.

While packages like Google Earth offer a range of opportunities in the classroom for complex geographical enquiry, they do little to help students' understanding of the technological aspects of GIS. By not allowing any time in the classroom to develop students' understanding of the skills of GIS, we are restricting the potential of our students to think spatially. In this way, GIS resources like Google Earth do not give students the opportunity to think about the quality and nature of the spatial data that underpins their thinking about the places they are investigating. The opportunities for critical spatial thinking are limited with packages like Google Earth because a crucial component of GIS is missing, namely attribute data (see Figure 1). Integrating learning opportunities that allow an understanding of geographical processes and GIS technical knowledge to be developed in parallel provide a context in which the ability to think spatially is maximised.

Another limitation of virtual globes and the web GIS sites listed above is that they are American based. As a result, some of the best features of these resources are only available for placespecific investigations in America. Additionally, the mapping layers provided are obviously not produced by the Ordnance Survey (OS) UK, limiting opportunities to make connections to those parts of the National Curriculum and exam specifications which require OS data.

The aim of this article is to raise teacher awareness of the developments in web -based GIS in the UK. In particular, this article will focus on web-based GIS resources that provide students with greater opportunities to analyse and examine critically the nature of spatial data. UK data sets will be examined at the national, regional and local scales.

Web-based GIS in the UK

There have been many advances in the availability of web -bas ed GIS in the UK since the year 2000. The stimulus for these developments related to the government's publication in 1999 of a White Paper called 'Modernising Government'. The paper stated that all government services should be electronically available by 2008. The delivery of GIS over the internet was seen as an important component of meeting this target (Beaumont et al., 2005). The benefit of this initiative to schools is that there is now a wealth of government data available via webbased GIS at a range of scales for geographical investigation.

1. Local Authority web-based GIS

As a response to the 1999 White Paper, many local authorities are now providing access to local area data over the internet. Much of this data is relevant to the teaching and learning of geography and provides significant opportunities for individual pupil investigation and the development of teacher-led exercises. Figure 2 details a list of Local Authorities currently providing access to data resources via web -based GIS. Such resources provide students not only with opportunities to utilise the functionality of a GIS but also with current examples of how GIS is being used by organisations to tackle real world problems. …