Nurturing the spatial information experts of the future

The Spatial Information Service (SIS) is part of the Improvement Service - the national improvement organisation for Scottish local government - and is responsible for bringing together local authority spatial data to provide standardised and consistent national datasets. It is a useful learning environment for skill areas including Geographic Information Science (GIS), research, analysis and coding.

Locational data underpins almost everything we do in everyday life, from satellites to smartphones.

Geospatial research is a valuable industry. It is used to inform many billions of pounds of investment in the public and private sectors globally.

However, there is a recognised deficiency in this sector in terms of profile, skills and workforce. But, there are a wide range of opportunities in the sector, and the prospects are endless.

The Improvement Service recently hosted some local secondary school students on one-week placements to provide an introduction to the geospatial sector, hoping they’d be inspired to progress into the industry.

Key Activities

West Lothian Council and the Developing Young Workforce West Lothian team worked with the Improvement Service’s Spatial Information Service to develop a proposal for a workplace placement focussed on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) related activities, centred upon geospatial data analysis.

A teacher work placement was hosted for a day in July 2018, which provided experience in modern business administration for a teacher from a local secondary school, successfully testing how a placement would fit within the daily activities of the Improvement Service.

In addition to supporting these teacher and pupil work placements, the Improvement Service has liaised with geospatial software providers ESRI UK, based in Edinburgh, to bring their educational training programme for teachers, in the ArcGIS software platform, to the West Lothian area.

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

The first pupil placement was a fourth year pupil from St Margaret’s Academy in Livingston who spent a week working with the Improvement Service 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 week concluded with an afternoon training session in the use of ArcGIS Online, run by the software provider ESRI UK at Deans Community High School, for the benefit of pupils and geography teachers across West Lothian.

The success of this placement has 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, but the focus this time was on the use of open-source software Quantum GIS (QGIS) although the same approach was followed in terms of online tutorials and mentoring. 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, this time digitising polygons. 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 week-long placement also offered the opportunity to look at the use of coding language Python in data science (using Jupyter Notebook) and how games are created in Python using the MIT Scratch platform.

Benefits and Impact

Both of these placements provided an introduction to the geospatial sector.

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

The focus of geospatial education is typically at the tertiary education level, as a component of university undergraduate geography study or as a more specialised postgraduate subject.

There is a wide demand for fundamental geospatial skills in many sectors, notably the built environment and development sectors, particularly with new surveying technologies and the growth of new specialisms such as building information modelling.

The experience of these two pupil placements indicates that there may be a significant latent interest in geospatial science at an earlier stage in education. The fourth year (S4) level includes 15 and 16 year old pupils who may not yet be committed to future career or study directions. The two students undertaking these recent work placements adapted readily to the requirements of geospatial tasks, assimilating the necessary skills very quickly with an intuitive grasp of locational data.

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, and with the flexibility to work with educators and employers.

West Lothian Council has an excellent pupil placement scheme, with central co-ordination and school-level support and an administrative structure supported by Gateway Shared Services. Software providers ESRI have a long track record in supporting education by facilitating school and college access to ArcGIS Online and by running a geo-mentor scheme bringing together geography teachers and geospatial professionals.

The Spatial Information Service carry out very similar work and tasks to most spatial data teams in local authorities across Scotland. Indeed, all councils provide the same datasets to SIS for their projects. The way this particular partnership has developed provides a useful model that can be deployed for other councils in Scotland and also at other levels of education up to the tertiary level. This may 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.


The Improvement Service is keen to host further placements and also to look at more advanced models, such as 4-week mentored placements for older pupils (such as the Career Ready Partnership scheme) and modern apprenticeships. Wider partnerships in the implementation of the recent placement model should be considered.

It is suggested that the wider geospatial profession looks at the provision of secondary education in geospatial science, and how this supports the academic sector and also the wider workforce, in an economy increasingly reliant upon locational data.

The use of gaming to promote interest in the geospatial sector should be considered. The Ordnance Survey’s Minecraft Map of Great Britain enjoyed significant success as a downloadable file and platforms such as MIT’s Scratch provide a good level of entry into the coding sector.

Pupils and students with an interest in this area will go on to work in many STEM careers. Subjects such as mathematics, computing, geography, physics and design-related subjects would be useful to pursue such a career.

Formal study is usually undertaken at the university level through the study of geography, although in-depth specialisation is typically at the MSc or Diploma level.

Such careers include academia, research, consultancy, environmental science, architecture, infrastructure provision, engineering, the built environment, programming, data science and space science.

It is an in-demand skill as real-time locational intelligence and services are becoming increasingly important in our society with opportunities around the world.

The gap in profile, skills and workforce in this particular area is recognised, and collaboration between the private, public, professional and educational sectors is required to unlock these potential opportunities.

Further Information

Improvement Service Spatial Information Service and Spatial Hub:

West Lothian Council School Work Experience Placements:

There are many opportunities in the field of geospatial science and data science, at all levels. The Association for Geographic Information (AGI) is a useful starting point:

The University of Edinburgh offers a prestigious MSc in GIS. (

MapAction ( is a voluntary organisation that works in disaster areas and provides an excellent example of the skills in demand in crisis response and management and in resilience planning.

The Institute of Civil Engineers:

The Royal Institute of British Architects:

The Royal Town Planning Institute:

MIT’s Scratch game creation software ( provides an introduction to Python.

Book by Carol Vorderman, called Computer Coding for Kids (published by Dorling Kindersley, ISBN 978-1-4093-4701-9) which is an excellent introduction to Scratch and Python for young people and also adults.

Developing the Young Workforce West Lothian:

QGIS is also recommended as a download to a home or school computer ( and this also has a QGIS Cloud plugin ( which can be used to create maps that can be shared online.

ArcGIS Online ( ) can be used to create online maps and is free to use for students and teachers and also for limited personal use.

Contact Information

To find out more about this case study, please contact:

Simon Roberts
Data and Engagement Strategist, Spatial Information Service
The Improvement Service
01506 283887