Geography Fieldwork

A Level

Using GIS

4. Using GIS

Planning a geographical enquiry, but not sure where to begin?

Geographical Information Systems are a great source of secondary data to help find topics and places to investigate. No matter what your starting point, GIS can help you to choose a location, ask enquiry questions, and carry out contextualising research.

If you are trying to generate a question, maps and secondary data sets can be a good place to start.

Geographical Information Systems will allow you to visualise the secondary data on maps, helping you come up with things you want to investigate further.

Finding secondary data sets

Many organisations responsible for the collection and distribution of data use Geographical Information Services on their websites to allow public access to their data. These GI Services let you explore the data provided by that organisation. It may also be possible to download data for use in GIS packages.

Rivers and flooding (river and sea)

Check My Flood Risk - Flood risk map - England - Uses Environment Agency Data

National Resources Wales - Flood risk map - Wales

Scottish Environmental Protection Agency - Flood risk map - Scotland

Flood Maps NIFlood Hazard & Flood Risk Maps for NI

Gauge Map - River level monitoring and rainfall gauges - UK

National River Flow Archive - River gauging stations, long term flow data and catchment spatial data

Population statistics

DataShine Census - 2011 Census data mapped - England and Wales

DataShine Scotland - 2011 Census data mapped - Scotland

Index of Multiple Deprivation 2015 Explorer - England

Indices of Deprivation for UK Countries - Interactive maps of deprivation in England (2015), Scotland (2016) and Wales (2014)

ONS 2011 Census Data - The starting point for access to 2011 Census data by release and in all available formats 

Police.uk - Crime map - Explore and compare crime and outcomes of crime in England, Wales and Northern Ireland

Soil and geology

UK Soil Observatory Soils Map Viewer - over 100 map layers contributed by a range of providers, covering topics such as soil carbon content, moisture, texture, and land cover

Soilscapes Soil Type Viewer - 1:250,000 scale, simplified soils data set covering England and Wales

British Geological Survey Geology of Britain Viewer - combines a number of key British Geological Survey data sets in a single viewer

Changing landscapes

Old Maps Online - Access historic maps

BritIce - A "glacial map" recording land forms and evidence resulting from the last British Ice Sheet

National Trust Mapping Our Shores - Coastal land use maps from 1965 and 2014 covering England Wales and Northern Ireland

Windy.tv - Forecast and monitoring maps for a range of factors including wind, waves and precipitation

National environment agencies

Environment Agency Interactive Maps - EA "whats in your back yard" maps give easy access to environmental data sets in England

Natural Resources Wales Interactive Maps - NRW interactive maps give easy access to environmental data sets in Wales

Scotland's Environment Web - Map - View any combination of different environmental map layers, published by a range of Scottish organisations and agencies.

ESRI Living Atlas and ArcGIS Online

The ESRI Living Atlas brings many secondary data sets into one place.

Through the living atlas you can access a (growing) selection of secondary data, adding data from different sources onto one map in the ArcGIS Online Map Viewer – this is particularly useful if you are looking to compare data from several different sources.

Try searching the Living Atlas for;

  • Index of Multiple Deprivation
  • UK Census
  • Flooding
  • CORINE Land Cover

You can also search ArcGIS Online for data created by others and shared publicly – be aware that these layers are not quality controlled, so consider the source, and quality of any data sets you use.

If you have downloaded data from elsewhere you might be able to add it to the ArcGIS Online Map Viewer - Compatible formats include .CSV File, Shapefile and .GPX File. There are three main ways of adding data from your computer to the Map Viewer;

  • The quickest and simplest way of adding data from a spreadsheet is via the "drag and drop" - this only works with data saved in .CSV file format, and gives limited functionality in ArcGIS Online.

  • Adding data via the map viewer - this will work with data in .CSV File, Shapefile and .GPX file format, and gives limited functionality in ArcGIS Online.

  • Adding data via My Content - this will work with data in .CSV File, Shapefile and .GPX file format, and gives full functionality in ArcGIS Online.

A comprehensive guide to adding layers to ArcGIS Online is available in the ArcGIS Online help pages.

Using GIS to help you develop a question

There are several positions from which you might be starting out – whichever situation you are in you might find using maps and GIS data helps you identify and refine your question.

"I know where I'm going, but I don't know what to investigate"

  • Your teacher has given you a fieldwork destination, or you are looking to complete your fieldwork locally.
  • You know the general area you are visiting, e.g. Guildford. But, have not chosen the area(s) your question will focus on, e.g. The North Street Market, Guildford.
  • You need to identify a theme that your question will focus on.

Maps are good starting points for asking geographical questions, use maps and aerial photography at different scales and with different mapping focusses.

Start looking at different maps of the area – Try working through the following three questions:

  • What features can I see (or are absent)?
  • What might that suggest?
  • What questions could I ask about it?

Look for anything that links to the geographical topics that you have studied – how might those ideas be relevant to this place?

"I want to investigate this topic, but don’t know the best place to do it"

  • Your teacher has given you a free choice of fieldwork destination.
  • You have an idea of a theme that your question will focus on.
  • You need to choose a fieldwork destination, and smaller area(s) to focus your question on.

You might find it useful to start looking at secondary data sets that relate to your chosen theme – What patterns do you notice?

Use some of the links to GI Services (above), do these data sets reveal any patterns.

Are there any places that show interesting characteristics? Are there contrasting areas close to each other?

Try working through the following three questions:

  • What features can I see (or are absent)?
  • What might that suggest?
  • What questions could I ask about it?

"I know we are going here, and I want to investigate this topic"

You might have got to this point from one of the two other starting points.

  • Your teacher might have given you a fieldwork destination, or you are looking to complete your fieldwork locally.
  • You know the general area you are visiting but need to identify the area(s) your question will focus on.
  • You have an idea of a theme that your question will focus on.

It is time to do some Contextualising Research relating to your chosen theme and location.

The aim of contextualising research is to make sure you know enough about the location to generate sensible questions or hypotheses.

This contextualising research can help you avoid questions that will probably not work, like one of the examples below;

  • Asking a question about the success of regeneration in an area where no regeneration has taken place.
  • Trying to assess the impact of a flood in a settlement with no history of flood events.
  • Hypothesising that different soil types will affect infiltration rates in a catchment if only one soil type is present.

All these sound like daft questions, but only when set in the context of some background knowledge.

Good questions or hypotheses will be based on geographical theory AND some relevant understanding of the location.