Geographical information systems (GIS) have been used by industry for many years. They allow layers of information - such as buildings, terrain and streets - to be combined to provide a greater understanding about a particular area, be it small or large. But they are costly and complex, and have made limited inroads into schools.
The technology has obvious appeal to government and commercial organisations, facilitating planning decisions, such as where to locate a new housing development so that it will have the least impact on the environment while best catering to the needs of people in the area.
Geography departments in some well-resourced secondary schools have bought a full GIS package such as Aegis, while others who are less well off have made do with cheaper substitutes such as Microsoft's MapPoint, which is nevertheless still very useful.
Now a new initiative looks set to bring GIS to all secondary schools in the south-east of England. Dakini is a unique GIS and multimedia project for schools in Kent and the Haute Normandie region of France and has been developed by Canterbury Christ Church University College using a European Regional Development Fund grant of pound;2.3 million.
Dakini aims to combine GIS and multimedia technology to help pupils gain a better understanding of their counterparts on the other side of the Channel, as well as establishing GIS as a cross-curricular teaching tool.
However, it is perhaps in geography that the system has the most appeal and the widest number of applications.
Genevieve Holden, one of the Dakini team at Canterbury Christ Church, says they have attempted to remove the barriers that have prevented GIS from becoming a motivational and inspiring teaching tool in the classroom.
Each school is given a CD-Rom containing a series of datasets tailored to its local area. They include Ordnance Survey maps at 1:25000 and 1:50000 scale, aerial photos from GetMapping and 3D digital elevation modules, all covering an area of 10km x 10km, as well as 7km x 7km maps from about 1870.
Satellite images of the relevant county, statistics from Census 2001 and environmental data are also found on the disc.
The project is officially launched in mid-June and Kent County Council is providing teachers with in-service training days to get them up to speed with using the technology in the classroom.
Geography teachers who have taken part in the pilot programme have found Dakini quite simple to master, says Genevieve Holden. Many have reacted very positively to the GIS and are "extremely interested" in using it in their lessons, she adds.
Sheila Taylor, head of geography at the Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys in Canterbury, is one such enthusiast. She describes the software as a "very powerful package" that is quite intuitive and much more user-friendly than Aegis. The Windows-like design means users can roll the mouse over the toolbar icons to reveal their uses. That helped her Year 13 students to start using the application in less than 15 minutes.
Stephen Scoffham, principal lecturer in education at Canterbury Christ Church University College, has worked with the Dakini team and likens the project to a 21st-century version of the atlas. "It's very exciting - giving children the ability to relate what they see on screen to their fieldwork and local knowledge makes it much more powerful and compelling," he says.
What makes the GIS so fascinating for students is its ability to combine and fade different kinds of dataset, such as superimposing unemployment figures on a map, says Kris Bater of Digital Worlds GIS, which has developed the software. "It really brings a map to life - it's all about interpreting geographical information in a really quite exciting way," she says. Information can also be simply exported to an Excel spreadsheet.
All secondary schools in the two regions of England and France will eventually be given the GIS software in English or French, as well as teacher training, support and help with developing lesson plans. The Dakini website also offers a series of virtual tours for a number of key sites of cultural, social, economic, historical and geographical significance in both regions.
The project team hopes that further funding will allow them to provide the software to schools - primary as well as secondary - in more regions of both countries. Bater says the company, set up by Jason Sawle and Richard Pole, is developing more datasets, such as maps of London before and after the Great Fire and aerial photographs taken in the 1950s showing the bomb damage from the Second World War.
Other datasets are already available, such as Census 2001 crime statistics, aimed for use in key stage 3 geography, which offer a comprehensive array of data for a local area.
* Digital Worlds GIS pound;495 (primary), pound;695 (secondary) plus VAT www.dakini.eu.com