How the Spatial Information Service is inspiring the next generation in geospatial information.

The Spatial Information Service (SIS) is part of the Improvement Service (IS) – the national improvement organisation for Scottish local government – and is responsible for bringing together local government spatial data to make it more useful and accessible.

SIS currently runs four separate spatial data projects:

  • the Spatial Hub,
  • the One Scotland Gazetteer,
  • Tell Me Scotland,
  • the National Street Gazetteer.

Data that has some element of location at its core now underpins almost everything that we do in our everyday life – from satellite data which guide us to work via Sat Navs, to the smartphone apps in our pocket that show us where our nearest takeaway restaurant of choice is.

Not only has this data become important in our everyday life but geospatial research is now a valuable industry too. It is used to inform many billions of pounds of investment in the public and private sectors globally.

Think about some of those things that we fret most about in life – pesky potholes and road closures? That’s geospatial! Restrictions on planning for home extensions – Geospatial! The school catchment for that home you’re going to buy? Yup, that’s geospatial too. And SIS are attempting to collect and make sense of it all at a national level.

Despite the role geospatial has to play in every single person’s life, there is a recognised deficiency in this sector in terms of profile, skills and workforce.

SIS have recently recognised this issue and are keen to enthuse youngsters (and teachers) about what this sector has to offer.

Partnership working to make a difference

West Lothian Council and the Developing Young Workforce West Lothian team worked with the SIS to develop a proposal for workplace placements centred around learning how to use and analyse geospatial data.  SIS also liaised with geospatial software providers ESRI UK, based in Edinburgh, to bring their educational training programme for schools to the West Lothian area.

The following discrete activities were developed:

  • Teacher work shadowing at the IS. A local teacher joined the IS for a day in July 2018, which provided an overview of the types of work that SIS is responsible for and tested how a placement would fit within the daily activities of the IS.
  • Two student placements with the SIS team (details below).
  • In-school geography teacher training. Teachers learned about ESRI’s ArcGIS online platform, and how this powerful and easy to use technology could be used in the classroom.

The student placement proposal focussed on three main activities: geospatial analysis, coding in Python and data research, guided by the interests of the pupils.

Student placement activity – not one size fits all

The first pupil placement was a fourth-year pupil from St Margaret’s Academy in Livingston who spent a week working with the IS in October 2018.  Following guidance in the use of ESRI’s ArcGIS Online software through online tutorials and office mentoring (including the preparation of earthquake maps from live data), he quickly learned the basics of geospatial analysis and used these skills to review a map of vacant and derelict land sites across Scotland.

The success of this placement led to a second placement, with a slightly different focus, in November 2018. The second pupil was also a fourth-year student, from Deans Community High School in Livingston. She followed a similar syllabus. The week’s activities included a meeting with the GIS officer from West Lothian Council and more in-depth work on the vacant and derelict land dataset for West Lothian. The student quickly progressed through online tutorials, creating a cartographic map of Japan and learning how to use coding-type queries to extract data and to join datasets together.

The feedback from the students has been extremely positive.

“I was very proud when I finished the mapping – this has been a great experience.” S4 student, St Margaret’s Academy

“This helped by motivating me to study geography and maps and now I’m considering it as a career.” S4 student, Deans Community High School.

So, why did SIS decide to do this?

There is a wide demand for fundamental geospatial skills in many sectors, but a recognised dearth of such skills coming out of universities and into the workforce. By engaging and enthusing our younger generation earlier in their learning it is hoped that we can start to improve the take up of these subjects and skills at all levels.

These placements proved that different skills, knowledge levels and interests could be accommodated for, depending on the individuals involved.

The main reason for the success of these placements has been the partnership between the various delivery partners.

  • Developing The Young Workforce initiative is a seven-year programme (2014 to 2021) with a focus on workplace skills, particularly in areas of future demand and in STEM skills.
  • West Lothian Council now has an excellent pupil placement scheme in place and have gained support from different software providers.
  • The IS provides a useful learning environment for skill areas including Geographic Information Science (GIS), research, analysis and coding, with a wealth of live datasets (such as the Vacant and Derelict Land Supply) to work on.
  • ESRI are the biggest GIS software provider in the world and have shown real commitment to geospatial skills development by opening up their ArcGIS online software to every school in the UK for free.

The way these partnerships have developed provides a useful model that can be deployed for any other local authority (not to mention other organisations) across Scotland. It could also be developed to target different levels of education, especially involving the universities.

What next?

The IS is keen to host further placements and also to look at longer placements, such as 4-week mentored placements for older pupils.

SIS carry out very similar work and tasks to most spatial data teams in local authorities (and other organisations) across Scotland. So we aim to promote this to those organisations that we work closely with and assist them where we can.

This may also be enhanced by partnerships with other organisations, such as the Association of Geographic Information and the Royal Geographical Society as well as wider industry partners.

Count me in – what are the opportunities?

It is hoped that pupils and students who show an interest in this kind of work will go on to work in many STEM careers. Whilst the skills and technology have an obvious association with geography, other subject areas such as mathematics, computing, history, physics and design can all benefit.

The prospects are endless with careers in academia, research, consultancy, environmental science, architecture, infrastructure provision, engineering, the built environment, programming, data science and space science.

It is an in-demand skill, with the UK Government now showing a real interest (through millions of investment) in making the country a world leader in this sector, and will be increasingly important across our whole society in the future.

The gap in profile, skills and workforce is a recognised problem. However, collaboration between keen individuals in the private, public, professional and educational sectors can really help unlock opportunities to inspire and grow the next generation of geographic data experts.