Thursday, November 8, 2007

A day in the land of maps: Ordnance Survey in Southampton

Southampton: N: 50º 54.453' W: 001º 24.723'
Today I travelled one and a half hours by train to Southampton to visit Roger Jeans, Education Manager at the UK Ordnance Survey (OS) offices. The Ordnance Survey ( ) is known to many teachers in Australia due to their excellent GIS Zone and MapZone website facility. My purpose to meet Roger was to see how such a pro-active and “student friendly” website came about and to see what the role has been of such a government agency in the introduction of GIS in schools. In all my other meetings in the UK the OS has repeatedly been mentioned as a major player and “go to place” for schools, vendors and associations interested in introducing GIS into schools. I found out much more than just this from Roger and really enjoyed seeing the home of UK mapping and data. Seeing the historical map facility was a real treat!
As background, the UK Ordnance Survey goes all the way back to 1746 and has played a key role during UK military and civilian history of the country. In particular their role during the fires of London, blitz years, tax system management gives an insight into the role of the Ordnance Survey over the years( The OS is a self-funding government agency which naturally has to sell its data and maps to maintain its considerable facility and product base. Today there are approximately 1200 people working in the agency (was over 5000 prior to the digital world) which has seen the amazing transition from hand drawn maps, though scribed maps to today’s digital maps.
In 1991 the OS embarked on its education involvement due to their concern about the quantity and quality of map skills amongst school age children and the perceived future needs of the spatial industry. Hence, the pro-active and networking role they have played in GIS Education in the UK. This focus has continued into the 21st century because of a concern that young people are still not aware of the job opportunities available in the industry and the need to raise community awareness of the work of the Ordnance Survey.
Roger heads up an education team which uses the considerable data, map and expertise capacity of the OS to develop educational materials for schools. Here are some of the activities/initiatives they have been involved in over recent years. All of these initiatives have been undertaken in an effort to create a GIS friendly environment in schools.
1.‘Mastermap’ ( is an intelligent set of data available to schools under license. The data is licensed to local authorities across the UK and then becomes available free to state schools. Private schools need to pay a license fee for the data as a separate arrangement. The previously mentioned emapsite ( ) is the site that schools go to download the data. The site aims to provide a one-stop data shop for schools to access UK and their local data in particular. Such a facility saves school chasing local authorities and councils for data. The data sets include topographic, transport network, administration boundary, street, and postcode layers as well as raster data at a variety of scales.
2.The OS has become a ‘critical friend’ to the geographical education community in the UK being able to network with other government agencies and members of parliament about the importance of spatial skills for students. To this end the OS has organised a meeting in the Speakers House in the House of Parliament on November 22nd to address the question of geography in schools. Michael Palin has been invited with other prominent community members to participate in the presentation.
3.The Survey is soon to conduct its Map Pilot programme which is hoped to provide a webserver facility for schools. If the initial project works then other government agencies could feed their data into the webserver for schools to create an evolving and comprehensive facility for all schools in the UK.
4.To increase the profile of the OS and to ensure all young people in schools have exposure to topographic maps the Survey instituted the ‘Free map scheme’ in 2002 ( The scheme is an amazing commitment to spatial literacy in schools and involves every year 7 student in the UK receiving a free full size topographic map of their local area. All schools have to do is to register their interest and provide student numbers to the OS. 1 teacher map is provided for every 25 students in the school. Even being free with no strings attached only 70-80% of UK schools take up this offer! The maps are worth $20 each and the programme costs approximately A$800,000 annually for the OS to implement. The maps are supported with a student map skills book and a sticker for the students to locate their home with on the map. I am sure all geography teachers would love such a scheme in Australia for their students and it really shows the degree the Ordnance Survey are prepared to go to support spatial literacy in schools.
5.As many already know the Map Zone ( and GIS Zone ( of the OS website is great to use with students but it is worth noting a few other education links on the site (
Go to the Education tab at and check out the following:
* A website workshop document can be downloaded from
* The GTE (Geography Teachers Educators) information page at has other Powerpoints to help teacher introduce GIS into their classroom, an AEGIS viewer workshops materials, the ‘Mapping news’ publication and much more.
6.The OS has also funded and supported GIS days for teachers over the years and this year could only cater for 60 of the 120 teachers who applied.
7.The OS Mapping news is brought out twice and year and can be downloaded as described above. I highly recommend the publication and the information in the following two editions summarising software available to schools ( and the article about helping young people learn about maps ( are particularly useful.
8.The OS website has had a new addition since October which is really a great resource for UK teachers and those GIS mad. This is the 'Explore Portal' at . What is great about this free portal is that it involves maps, GPS, data collection, field observations, image importing and blogging for students and others to use and experience. What a great idea and a really good template for a similar facility in Australia for schools to use. More to explore on that one! Have a good look at it and think of its potential to enhance student involvement in GIS and fieldwork.

As for GIS implementation, Roger considers the digital divide is a great challenge for many teachers to overcome and that considerable work still needs to be done to upgrade the ICT skills of teachers. What the OS is doing is to help support those trying to introduce GIS into schools with accessible data, resources, networking and general support. The OS supplies an interesting role model for us to discuss back in Australia and thanks to Roger for spending the day explaining the role and work of the OS to me.

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