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. To get the most of out GIS, there are a few technical terms that it is useful to know.

Fieldwork involves collecting data, including:

  • measurements
  • observations
  • recordings

In GIS, a piece of data is called an attribute. There are four possible types of attribute: integer, float, string and date. Choosing the right attribute type is important as the wrong choice can make it harder to map your data correctly in GIS.

What data you collectWhat does the data look like? (called the data format)GIS calls this
A count of the number of houses within an area. An environmental quality survey score.A whole numberInteger (or Short or Long)
The length of a pebble on a beachA number with a decimal point
(GIS might allow you to define the number of decimal places)
Float (or Double or Decimal or Real)
Answers to a question within a questionnaire – “Where have you come from?”
A description of your mood.
A set of characters of any type in any order – Text or text and numbersString (or Text)
1st May 1982
30th January 2017, 15:55:54
A date and/or timeDate

In GIS each piece of data (e.g. measurement, observation or recording) has a location. There are three possible types of location: point, line and polygon. Which you use will depend on the features you are describing, and the coarseness of the scale you are working. Your data collection might use a combination of points, lines and polygons.

PointA single locationLocations of individual trees
LineSeveral linked points in a known orderRoute taken through a town for a dérive
PolygonSeveral linked points in a known order to form a closed shapeArea of uniform land use or a census output area

So in summary, you will need to make some decisions about your data collection.

  • What data to collect (what attributes?)
  • How to record that data (what attribute types?)
  • How to record locations (what location types and location format?)

As well as deciding what type of location to use, you will need to decide on the most appropriate format to define them.

Examples of using GIS to plan data collection

(a) Beach sediment

Sampling locations for pebble measurements have been chosen on map in the classroom, you need to navigate to each sampling point to collect data.

Location TypeWhat location format?Considerations
PointLatitude and Longitude or Ordnance Survey grid referenceUse GPS app or appropriate map to navigate to location. You will need to convert OS grid references to Lat/Long for most GIS – Convert at doogal.co.uk Batch Reverse Geocoding

(b) Glacial striations

Record the location and orientation of striations identified in the field.

Location TypeWhat location format?Considerations
PointLatitude and Longitude or Ordnance Survey Grid ReferenceUse GPS app or appropriate map to identify current location. You will need to convert OS grid references to Lat/Long for most GIS – Convert at doogal.co.uk Batch Reverse Geocoding

(c) Questionnaires

Recording and mapping visitor response to “Where have you come from?” question.

Location TypeWhat location format?Considerations
PointFull Postcode, e.g. SY4 1HWLess error prone than asking for name of place. Some GIS can use or you can convert to Lat/Long online at doogal.co.uk Batch Geocoding

(d) Footpath erosion

Mapping severity of footpath damage within a sensitive area.

Location TypeWhat location format?Considerations
LinesLatitude and Longitude or Ordnance Survey Grid ReferenceRecord as a series of individual points; make sure you know the order.

(e) Land use

Mapping land use.

Location TypeWhat location format?Considerations
AreasLatitude and Longitude or Ordnance Survey Grid ReferenceRecord as a series of individual points; make sure you know the order. For areas ensure points form a closed loop.

(f) Environmental quality

Assessing environmental quality as part of a study of deprivation.

Location TypeWhat location format?Considerations
AreasCensus Output Area (or Super Output Area)Identify Census areas to be studied in advance (using secondary data). Ensure you have a map showing area boundaries.

Adding data

Recording location could be done by noting down the latitude and longitude of every point where you collect data, storing locations in a GPS device or using existing boundaries (such as census output areas) to define your sampling areas.

By creating a spreadsheet containing your located data you can add your field data to a map in ArcGIS Online.

Creating a spreadsheet to add point data to ArcGIS online.

Adding a spreadsheet containing point data to ArcGIS Online can be done in three different ways.

Creating a spreadsheet to add Census area data to a map.

With ArcGIS Online, you can use the Collector app for ArcGIS or Survey 123 to collect your data directly onto a map.

Both Collector and Survey 123 are available for Android, iOS and Windows, and allow you to collect spatial data quickly and simply – which you choose might depend on your level of expertise with GIS and the type of data and features you want to collect.

Full examples

(a) Questionnaire

A questionnaire used as part of an investigation into the sphere of influence of a seaside town might include

QuestionLocation or AttributeTypeRecording Data
Where have you come from?LocationPointRecord full postcode
How did you get here?AttributeTextClosed question, choose from list
Why have you chosen to visit Tenby?AttributeTextOpen question, record full response
When did you arrive?AttributeDateRecord arrival date
How long did it take you to get here?AttributeFloatRecord travel time in hours (or parts of). E.g. 3.5 hours
How long are you going to stay?AttributeIntegerRecord number of days. E.g. 1 day

(b) Field survey in hydrology

A student investigating infiltration rates in contrasting areas of a catchment might record the following.

Observations or MeasurementsLocation or AttributeTypeRecording Data
Location of measurementLocationPointLatitude and longitude
Infiltration rate (mm/hour)AttributeFloatCalculated from infiltration tube measurements
Soil TextureAttributeTextFrom soil texture test
Soil DepthAttributeIntegerSoil Depth (mm)
GradientAttributeIntegerMeasured with clinometer

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 NI – Flood 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 – 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 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.


Secondary and Further Education Courses

Set your students up for success with our secondary school trips and courses. Offering excellent first hand experiences for your students, all linked to the curriculum.
People forraging in Tollymore

Training for Group Leaders

Centre-based and digital courses for teachers
a level students taking part in bioblitz

Experiences for Young People

Do you enjoy the natural world and being outdoors? Opportunities for Young People aged 16-25.
Lady with laptop in mountainous area

Digital Hub

Subscribe/login to our package of teaching videos and resources