GIS is mentioned on every A level specification and the majority of GCSE specs. In a nutshell GIS is a means of representing and analysing spatial data using IT. It is an incredibly powerful tool and one that our students should be familiar with. Despite this, based on my experiences in schools as well as informal conversations with other departments and teachers it is an area of the subject that is often integrated poorly into geography curricula. I think that there are a multitude of reasons for this but chiefly it is down to:
  • A lack of confidence and understanding from teachers about exactly what GIS is.
  • Expensive, complicated software.
  • A lack of direction from exam boards and a lack of collaboration with universities.

This is a real shame. GIS has massive potential to engage secondary students in geography. Speaking for myself the first time I encountered GIS at university I felt like I was really applying my subject knowledge and investigating / forming conclusions under my own steam. It is incredibly satisfying to enter the data and see a beautiful spatial representation appear in front of you. I have previously blogged about some of my thoughts on GIS in secondary schools here

This post is an outline / evaluation of some of the free web based GIS tools that are available to geographers. I was introduced to many of these at the Cardiff University case studies day. Like many things GIS is going open access; this is a really exciting time for GIS in secondary schools. 

Before launching into a review of some of the resources shown to me today I want to discuss a very real pitfall of data represented by GIS and something that students need to be aware of. One of the simpler GIS and something that students will be manipulating and analysing most often are computer generated choropleth maps. The way that the data intervals in choroplelth maps are defined can have a big impact on the spatial patterns that emerge, the image below is a great example of this.
You can see that the main classification methodologies produce similar, but distinct patterns when finally mapped. Students should be able to evaluate the methodology they applied for setting classifications. At the least I think they should be aware that different approaches exist, particularly A level students. I wont launch into a detailed discussion of these methods in this post but an excellent explanation can be found here Now to review some of the resources I have seen today which focus on data from the 2011 census:

2011 Census Open Atlas Project - 
This is a project developed by Alex Singleton, a lecturer in GIS at Liverpool University. This is why he created them (from his own website)
  1. To demonstrate the value of the 2011 census
  2. Provide a free 2011 static Census atlas to anyone who wants one
  3. Because I do not believe web maps should necessarily be the default way of distributing geographic data
  4. To illustrate how open data and software can be used in creative ways to generate insight
  5. An attempt to save local authorities money who might be thinking of doing these type of analyses themselves
  6. To provide reproducible code that enable others to generate similar maps at Output Area level
Why reinvent the wheel? If the data is there why reproduce it? It was an ambitous project and there is certainly some excellent data here. The coding used means that almost every non count variable of the 2011 census has been mapped at the Output Area scale. Some of the limitations are that there is no scale bar and there is no opportunity for students to manipulate the data themselves but certainly a useful resource to have up your sleeve.

Office for national statistics interactive content -
This provides some good opportunities for comparison between the 2001 and 2011 census although the interface is quite clunky and the search feature isn't great. Still there is some good data here and if you spend some time exploring / getting used to the interface there are some excellent learning opportunities to be had. Data is mapped using the equal interval classification and this cannot be changed.

Office for national statistics neighbourhood statistics -

The user experience is a friendlier one here and there are more opportunities for data manipulation. Once you have found the area of interest and selected the spatial scale and statistic you can view the information as a map. You can change the number of divisions and there are hundreds of thousands of possibilities for mapping census information. 

InfoBase Cymru -
This data is only available for Wales but is one of the best interfaces. Also there is more opportunity to manipulate the data, for example you can alter the classification method and compare the impacts this has on the pattern that emerges. 

Creating your own maps
I am yet to have a proper play around with these resources yet but the potential in terms of students using a real piece of GIS software to create their own spatial data representations from scratch is really exciting. The QUANTUM GIS PROJECT  is a free to download piece of software. The website has manuals and tutorials for users. Together with census data downloadable here and the boundary data available here departments can fully integrate GIS from scratch into their A level teaching. 

To conclude
There is far more material for discussion here than one post allows. As I develop resources and lessons based on these open source GIS I will of course share with everyone, perhaps some how to guides might be in order. It is a really exciting time for GIS, it is one of the sharp ends of the subject and people's contact with it is increasing as technology advances. I am going to be taking charge of developing GIS teaching for my department and think that some of these resources will be incredibly useful. I would love to hear about what other departments are doing with regard to GIS so get in touch!

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