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Software for the real world

Rapidly gaining ground in the classroom, geographic information systems offer a software resource that enables students to understand how maps work. Patrick Wiegand explains

Geographic information systems (GIS) are the greatest contribution geographers have made to the world since the Age of Discovery. Locating a business? Need to find out where the customers are? Planning delivery routes? Managing public services? Conserving the environment? You need GIS. It's where real world geography happens. And it's happening fast in geography classrooms.

A geography class is investigating a Yorkshire Dales village. The residents are engaged in discussions with the local planning authority about possible Conservation Area status. A decision depends on an assessment of environmental quality. The students make a map of the village by using Ordnance Survey landline data with ArcView GIS. They carry out a field survey to ascertain the age and nature of the buildings and appraise the contribution each building makes to the village's special character. Using GIS, they map each variable in turn and combine them to give an overall index of environmental quality. Adding an aerial photograph to the view enables pupils to see each building in context. The village as a whole also has a relationship with the surrounding landscape. How much has its development been influenced by relief? With ArcView's "create contours" function, students see that the original village grew on the valley side with more recent building on the steeper slopes.

Another class is investigating global variations in the quality of life. After discussion they agree that mobile phones are a significant indicator. They use the search engine Google to find a site (www.itu.intITU-Dictstatistics) that gives the number of cellphone subscribers in each country. They use GIS to make a choropleth map (one which shows regions or areas with the same characteristics) from their data table - but something isn't right. Surely mobile phones aren't as common in China and India as in the US and the UK? They realise they've mapped the number of phones in each country, but haven't related this number to the total population. The map of mobile phones per 1,000 people looks very different from the map that simply shows the number of phones. With GIS you can turn data into ratios at a click of a button. You can also experiment with changing the number of classes of data and the way it's classified. You can query the data table and the map. Is the use of cellphones related to high or low densities of population? Is it a rural or urban phenomenon? Is it associated with younger or older age groups?

The real power of GIS is that it gives users control over the map. Information can be analysed and visualised in new ways, revealing previously hidden relationships, patterns and trends. Students don't just discover the geography behind the data, however. They come to understand how maps themselves work. In the past, maps were only made by skilled cartographers. Now anyone can make a map with their computer, so it becomes all the more important to understand what makes a map effective. Research at the University of Leeds suggests that students who have made their own maps using GIS understand their conventional school atlas better.

The good news is that GIS is available at a price many schools can afford. However, not every package can do everything. For professional desktop GIS that offers huge scope yet runs on most school hardware I'd recommend ArcView 3.2 by ESRI (pound;435 educational bundle with site licence). If this looks expensive then remember that GIS can be used by other subjects too, such as business studies and ICT. In the US, GIS is used in schools more by scientists than geographers. It's also potentially a powerful school management information and planning tool. So, it might be possible to spread the cost. Find out more about ESRI's GIS software, support and free downloads at www.esri.comindustriesk-12. The company's UK homepage is at

The brand new Aegis 3 is a less expensive alternative at pound;100 single user or pound;200-pound;300 for a site licence ( and is designed specifically for educational use. I like the way it integrates maps, tables, images and text in an A4 worksheet format. If I wanted a simple map-drawing package for younger students or those who find map skills challenging, I'd choose Local Studies ( It's not really GIS but I especially like the easy way students can hotlink pictures and text to their own maps. It costs between pound;50 and pound;143 (depending on school phase and level of site licence).

For further information about OS landline data (free to local authority schools) go to and for aerial photography (about pound;30 per square kilometre tile) see: Getmapping ( and

For details of GIS courses for teachers Email:

Patrick Wiegand is reader in geography education at the University of Leeds and Leverhulme Research Fellow in GIS in Education.

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