Ordnance Survey maps, as the travel writer Bill Bryson once noted, are an extraordinary British resource. What other country in the world offers such wonderfully detailed maps that they distinguish between sand pits and gravel pits, and painstakingly log the difference between power lines on pylons and power lines on poles?
Now the OS's priceless data bank is likely to be used far more widely in education following a new agreement with Anglia Multimedia, which will allow every school in Britain to download up to 100 large-scale map "tiles", at just pound;8 each, or pound;5 each for 25 or more, for use in the classroom. And since it only takes half a dozen such tiles to cover a school's immediate locality this is a highly affordable way for any school to dip a toe into the burgeoning world of computerised geographical information systems (GIS).
Digital maps have long been available to schools via their local education authority, but uptake has been patchy, so the OS is now hoping that this simplified policy, allowing every school to decide whether and how to use them, will spread the word.
"The attitude of the OS is much healthier and more positive now than it has been, and its maps are a wonderful resource," says David Rayner, head of geography at Rainham Mark Grammar School in Gillingham, Kent. I watched him introducing a Year 9 class to the school's software package, which allows them, among many other things, to access and manipulate local maps, and layer them against aerial photographs of the Medway area, "so they can peel back the map and see the photo, or peel back the photo and see the map, and see how the two things relate to each other".
The software is ahead of the usual motley collection of school hardware, and in the computer room there were the inevitable hiccups and delays as pupils waited for the information-rich data to load. Then there were new skills to be acquired as they learned to manipulate the aerial photographs ("Ooh-er, where's the school gone?"). But they were clearly engaged with looking at their home area from a whole new viewpoint, and entranced by the level of detail ("Look, there's my house").
Richard Doust, 13, was fascinated to see how close his old primary school was to his secondary school and said he could imagine all kinds of ways you could use this type of data. "If you were going on a school journey, or a field trip, it would be useful to show the path you took and where you went."
David Rayner says older students are already finding their own way to the data an using it in their projects and course work. "For teaching good, modern geography you need up-to-date maps. In the past, schools have always invested quite a lot in paper maps, but these date horribly. With this system you can get updates, and you haven't got that problem."
It also allows students to manipulate data, in order to plot things such as land use, or add fieldwork findings to maps, and with the whole world potentially available, in exactly the same level of detail, GIS systems like this look set to revolutionise the way that not only geography, but also subjects such as history and citizenship, are taught.
"You can see that students find it fun to play with these images," says Dr Gesche Schmid, of Medway council's planning department, who is masterminding the project. "And they are using so many different skills together when they are doing it." Sixteen secondary schools in Medway are now piloting this system, under a scheme launched by Gesche Schmid, to get digital maps out into the community. Teachers are working with the software company Digital Tours to iron out wrinkles in the system, share teaching ideas, and undergo training. ERDAS Mapsheets is the software package used, which links the GIS mapping package to Excel spreadsheets, and although at present the data comes on CD-Rom, at an administrative and training cost of about pound;250 per school, there are plans to update this via an Extranet connection.
Across the country, schools are finding numerous ways to use the OS digital maps. Many, such as Horndean School in Hampshire, are coming to them via the Safer Routes to School software, which helps them collect information about pupils' journeys. Students can place symbols on the map, showing where they feel nervous about crossing a road, or where there is a darkly-lit corner, and their collated responses can help planning departments identify blackspots.
In Sandwell in the West Midlands pupils are taking part in a project matching thermal image scans to local maps, to assess the impact of environmental changes, and in Staffordshire children are using digital maps to prepare for school visits.
Digital mapping is developing at top speed. The Medway system uses data compression techniques developed in the United States by the FBI, and software that just five years ago would have cost businesses a fortune is now available to schools at a fraction of that price. Commerce and industry have already discovered the myriad uses of digital map systems, and schools can now follow in their wake.
* Visit www.ordnancesurvey.co.uk for more details of available map data and specialist software suppliers.