Five ways to map your path - and there's more;Cartography

8th January 1999 at 00:00
New technology has made the map a more flexible and useful tool than ever before. swaps his compass for a computer.

New technologies bring new opportunities I and new languages. The world of Ordnance Survey is no exception. While still retaining its role as the acknowledged guardian of traditional British, and much global, cartography, Ordnance Survey has navigated its way down the digital road, which is where a new language has kicked in: OSCAR, Strategi, HAL and PROFILE (built from DTMs, of course!) are all new products. But one key term dominates: GIS - or geographical information system.

GIS is the acronym we'll concern ourselves with here. It is closely related to the actual, and potential, digitisation of the Ordnance Survey stock of map data, which provides almost limitless possibilities, particularly for education. Indeed, education may be the big winner from work going on in some rather large and unattractive buildings in Southampton.

Map users have always dealt with GIS models, it is just that we haven't called it that before. A GIS is a combination of spatial data used to solve a specific problem (my definition, actually - Ordnance Survey produces a booklet to define the term). GIS has come of age because the tools are not just printed maps or lists of co-ordinates. Today's tools are a sophisticated and infinitely variable set of digital databases and related technology.

GIS has shifted the perspective, so rather than getting the map and thinking what can be done with it, start with the problem and decide how map data may help solve it. Then plug in the computer andI problem solved! Well, not quite. Many schools are unaware of what is obtainable and how maps can be used.

A good starting point for anybody would be the third and newest version of OS Interactive Atlas of Great Britain. This links the old with the new. Recognisable maps form the basis for studying a range of cartographic and interpretative skills. Map scale can be varied, but there is the instantly familiar format of the magenta-covered 1:50,000 Landrangers at the heart of the product. Importantly, Interactive Atlas also introduces two other key GIS attributes: site specific maps and vector mapping.

Site specific maps are increasingly possible, and valuable. In essence, you simply define the area you require, press the button, and there is your map. Imagine a field study around your school, at a scale of your choosing, with the school right in the middle of the map area. The advantages are clear for places such as field study centres and nature reserves. And site specific maps are only the tip of a customisation iceberg that is heading our way.

Vector mapping (another new term for an old concept) is also infinitely easier with digital storage. Vector maps are those with only certain "layers" visible. You might want just the contours and roads, or the water courses and forests, or some more complex combination of map features. OS Interactive Atlas of Great Britain provides an excellent opportunity to try this out. At the press of a button, you can mutate some familiar maps to present a very different and intriguing, landscape.

The iceberg analogy works well with Ordnance Survey products. While Landranger, and the increasingly popular Explorer (1:25,000) maps are well-known, the majority of what OS does remains hidden. While she may not admit to this situation, Elaine Owen, from OS educational publications, is keen to promote a better flow of information to schools.

Part of the solution is for schools to understand and utilise the agreements that exist between OS and local education authorities. LEAs pay for an annual licence that gives their schools and colleges opportunities to use maps and digital data free of copyright restrictions. The details appear regularly in Mapping News, the OS publication provided free for education. Grant maintained and independent schools can buy a similar licence.

Powys County Council is exploiting the opportunities. As early as 1996, it established what proved to be an energetic working party that led to a commitment to establish a GIS in every school. Geographers and IT specialists were at the forefront, but the intention is to embrace all relevant disciplines. A key aim of Powys is to "realise the full benefits of OS service level agreements in the school environment".

In addition to LEAs, there are approved OS educational suppliers who will have the latest information about what's on offer. They should also have details of the increasing number of software packages that support OS digital products, including new interactive products such as Map Maker Student or Our School, Their School.

Ordnance Survey's motives are not entirely altruistic - it needs the cash. Though the Government funds the unprofitable bit of making new maps, OS has to operate commercially across every other activity. In schools, OS sees opportunities for generating revenue and raising awareness of how GIS applies to everyday life. As Elaine Owen says: "We are educating the civil engineers, the logistics managers, the farmers and foresters of tomorrowI so many jobs have a spatial element." Farmers? Linked with global positioning, farmers can use OS products at very large scales to plan planting and care of crops.

Despite changes in technology, one fact has remained constant: maps do not stand alone. They only have value when there is a purpose. From early military use, through travel and tourism to the multiplicity of hi-tech problem solving, the need is not diminishing. It is a motorway under construction, with the church spire just about still visible.

OS Interactive Atlas of Great Britain pound;39.99 Details of Map Maker Student can be obtained from MapIT Ltd (01487 813745) and Our School, Their School from Wildgoose Publications (01530 835685).

Look out for OSTES Solar Eclipse Map available free in the 'TES Primary' magazine in April.


Ordnance Survey stand E82 08456 050505

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