Geography Fieldwork


What is GIS?

Geographical Information Systems (GIS) capture, store, manipulate, analyse, manage and display spatial data.

GIS in human geography.
GIS in human geography. Example of mapped 2011 census data in Derby by © OpenStreetMap contributors / Open Database Licence.
GIS in physical geography.
GIS in physical geography. Map of drumlins and other glacial features in the Yorshire Dales by Britice Glacial Map v1.0.

How do I use GIS?

Different GIS packages are available, ranging from expensive to free, and complicated to simple.

The simplest Geographical Information Services (GI Services) are designed to make big data sets easy to explore. Many of these are free to access online. These let you view secondary data sets, but don’t let you add your own data.

In FSC Centres we use ArcGIS Online as our main GIS platform, ArcGIS Online is a cloud based GIS application, so needs no software to be installed. It can be accessed from any device, from any location with an internet connection. Your maps and data are stored online.

ArcGIS Online gives you:

  • Access to a range of base maps appropriate for a range of different fieldwork environments, including aerial photography, and Ordnance Survey maps for UK schools.
  • Access to authoritative secondary data sets via the ESRI Living Atlas
  • Access to a wide range of other secondary data sets “shared” in a Wikipedia style
  • Ability to add primary or secondary data sets from files stored on your computer
  • Powerful analysis tools
  • Field data collection apps for tablet and smartphone
  • Ability to save and share data and maps

From Easter 2017 all UK schools have free access to ArcGIS Online, if you want to use GIS in your work talk to your teachers to find out if they have set up your schools account yet.

Why should I use GIS?

Geographical enquiry diagram

GIS helps you do better Geography.

As a student carrying an enquiry you are part of a Geographical Information System – asking questions, collecting and processing information and applying knowledge and understanding to the results. All of this is possible via “paper-based” system, but technology can make this easier.

By using GIS, you will be able to access authoritative, secondary data sets on a range of scales, map data more quickly and explore the data behind the map with powerful analysis tools.

GIS has potential uses throughout the geographical enquiry process, from asking questions, designing methods and collecting data, presenting data, analysing data, supporting the drawing of conclusions and evaluating the accuracy, reliability and validity of your work.

Using GIS in your introduction and planning

Are you planning a geographical enquiry, but not sure where to begin? GIS is a great source of secondary data to help find topics and places to investigate. No matter what your starting point, GIS can help you find a location, ask enquiry questions, and carry out contextualising research.

Find out more about using GIS for planning your enquiry.

Using GIS in your methods and data collection

Good fieldwork data collection is well planned. The special feature of GIS is that each piece of data is tied to a particular location. So GIS can help you plan both where you will collect data and how you will collect data.

Find out more about using GIS for your methods and data collection.

Using GIS to present your data

Maps are a powerful technique for representing spatial relationships, but they can take a long time to draw by hand. GIS software can quickly draw a range of maps from your data, making it easy to pick the most appropriate map for your enquiry question and for the data type and location.

Find out more about using GIS to present your data.

Using GIS to analyse your data

Trends and patterns can be difficult to recognise, especially when a large number of data points are presented on a map. To help make sense of the information that you have collected, GIS software offers a range of toools to summarise raw data, carry out calculations and find spheres of influence.

Find out more about using GIS to analyse your data.

Using GIS to draw conclusions

When drawing conclusions, you will need to look for links between different sets of results. This means looking at primary and secondary evidence together. GIS makes this much easier, allowing you to overlay data sets onto the same base map, and explore relationships within and between the different layers.

Find out more about using GIS to draw conclusions.

Using GIS to evaluate your enquiry

Critically evaluating the accuracy, validity and reliability of your methods and conclusions is a demanding geographical skill. But GIS can help! By overlaying different data sources onto the same base map, such as primary data you have collected with published secondary data, you can easily compare the two sources.

Find out more about using GIS to evaluate your enquiry.

Further information for teachers

Since 2013 Field Studies Council (FSC) have been a strategic partner of ESRI UK. We have worked with ESRI UK to embed GIS in our teaching of geography field courses, using ArcGIS Online and ESRI mobile apps. From 2017 all UK schools have free access to intuitive, powerful, web based GIS through ESRI UK’s schools programme. Visit the ESRI UK website for more information.

FSC Centres offer CPD courses for teachers looking to use ArcGIS Online. Booking information for forthcoming courses is at the FSC website.