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Supporting high quality fieldwork using free maps and GIS from the internet

Written by David Holmes, Geography Advisor to the Field Studies Council and Senior Examiner for Edexcel

Download the full Supporting high quality fieldwork using free maps and GIS from the internet article below.

What is GIS?

A geographical information system (GIS) has the ability to store, retrieve, manipulate and analyse a range of spatially related data.  With a GIS the user may ask questions of data related to the map, search for patterns and distributions and investigate the underlying relationships between different sets of data.GIS handles data quickly and efficiently, proving mapping facilities that may have taken many hours to complete manually.
Digital resources and new mapping technology must represent the cornerstone of support for fieldwork at the beginning of the 21st century.  In particular they can:

  • Help question and understand a range of primary and secondary data

  • Enable multiple interrogation of complex data

  • Make use of 3D representations, for example the use of Google Earth in fieldwork

  • Provide opportunities for modelling and decision-making, therefore adding value to the fieldwork experience

Digital resources from the internet deliver a number of advantages in the context of fieldwork:

  • The vast majority of digital maps can be obtained free, or at least you have the ability to grab still images from the screen to use in an educational context

  • Maps and resources can be ‘live’ or at least updated on a more regular frequency than traditional printed versions

  • Teachers and students can access to a host of specialist maps and resources which can stimulate young minds and improve spatial awareness.  These can even be used as the foundation for an enquiry question

  • Digital maps and resources are easy to store and retrieve – saving space and time

  • Welcome to the 21st century. The future of maps lies in digital resources which can be easily updated.  The future workforce will be using digital maps. Just about every conceivable sector of industry and public service depends on digital maps – its essential to retail, agriculture, the emergency services, building and planning

Introducing the pre-during-after model

Another significant role of high quality maps, GIS and other digital resources is to support the entire fieldwork process, for example before going out (pre) and on return to the classroom (post). Once a model such as this is adopted, the whole fieldwork experience becomes more valuable as the fieldwork is seen less a one-off day visit, but more as integrated within a whole scheme of work. 

The basic maps sites

Probably the best maps resources for detailed and large scale maps is the Ordnance Survey. Here you can get your hands on an extract of a map available at different scales including 1:50,000 and 1:25,000. A map extract is easily selected simply by entering a postcode or place name. This can be used to find out what a place is like in terms of its physical and human geography (site, situation, aspect, relief, drainage, land use etc). Subscribers can also use Digimap for Schools.

One of the other key benefits of the site is that the license permits free individual copies of the same map for all students. Use the command on the top-right of the window print/save/copy. The map can then be laminated and used for fieldwork in the lcoal area or to contextualise a 'virtual' fieldtrip to a contrasting place.

Another excellent map resource is Multimap (now Bing Maps).

Multimap seems to work best when its viewing window is maximised. This makes the map more prominent in comparison with the banner advertising which surrounds the web window.

Another recommended feature of the site is to use the air- photo element – again found on the toolbar at the top of the map window (it can only be used with larger-scale maps, for example >1:500,000). Once the aerial view is active try hovering the mouse over the image to reveal the map underneath. This is an excellent method of linking air and satellite imagery to map features.

The table downloadable below provides a summary of these and other map sites suitable for supporting high quality fieldwork.

Using electronic maps in an appropriate manner is a really important way to add value to a piece of fieldwork. The use of a digital map (as opposed to a photocopied version) adds considerable worth. 

Free GIS from the web to support fieldwork

The internet is becoming much more sophisticated in terms of the type of geographical data it can deliver, not just limited to maps and map data, but there are a host of other sites that may be useful in terms of supporting GIS. There are too many good sites to list at length but here are a few of my favourites!

  • Zoopla allows you to see properties and prices in an area that are for sale (it uses the Google local platform). Good for comparing across areas, regions or postcodes

  • The Magic site is a really good way of getting into some free GIS, simply by using the internet.  The site advertises itself as a multi-agency countryside resource. Type in a place or postcode to see a map with countryside information. The best thing is that you can change and manipulate the maps layers

  • A real favourite is this weather site which uses the Google Local. Whilst the BBC and the Met Office offer excellent educational map based resources, this site has the edge for me as it shows both highly localised and live information. Selecting any of the sites (indicated by the circles) allows the user to see a graph of past weather history and to find out more about the geography of the weather station.  The colours of the circles correspond to air temperatures (blues and greens colder and yellows / reds warmer) and ‘arrowtails’ on the circles indicate the wind direction. The wind strength is indicated by the number in the centre of a circle.  This is the strength in mph. A full key is included on the website. This site offers enormous potential in terms of pre, during and post fieldwork support.  Students can track the passage of a depression and compare their primary observations to published information.  How and why are there differences

  • A final recommendation is the Quikmaps site. Draw pictures and label things on a Google map using simple clicks and drags. Easily move the map to anywhere in the world.  The user-friendly nature of the site makes it ideal for students to create maps of their local or personal geographies and fieldwork activities

Author David Holmes works part time as Geography Advisor to the Field Studies Council and is a senior Examiner for Edexcel.  He also co-ordinates The Gifted and Talented programme of courses at Kilve Court in Somerset.


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Free GIS and Maps for Fieldwork Table


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Free GIS and Maps for Fieldwork Table (1)


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Free GIS and Maps for Fieldwork Supporting Article


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