Website rocks - Geology for the people

Screenshot of GeoScenic website

The GeoScenic website

25 January 2011 by Richard Hughes

Need information about the Earth beneath your feet? Seeking nourishment for budding young scientific minds? Looking for photos of the landscape around you? Now there's one place to find them all: the British Geological Survey's 'OpenGeoscience' website. Richard Hughes sells it to us.

Launched in early December 2009, OpenGeoscience is unique. It gives visitors access to their choice of a wide range of geological data, searchable maps, high quality photographs, Key Stage 1-3 resources, in-house software applications, and an open archive of BGS reports and published papers. What's more, for most users it's free.

The site's flagship is access to street-level-resolution geological mapping for the whole of the UK - the first service of its kind in the world. Visitors can access the maps through a purpose-built 'UK geology viewer', which allows them to zoom into their area of interest and view the geology against a topographical (landscape) map or satellite image backdrop. Click on the map and detailed geological information will appear before your eyes. More technical users can export the dataset to a KML file (a file type used to display geographic data in a geo-browser) and look at it on Google Earth, or view it as a web map service.

Screenshot from GeoScenic website

Screen shot from the GeoScenic website

The image library - GeoScenic - has more than 50,000 modern and historical images from BGS's archives, which you can search by theme, collection, or even the name of your town or village. It's proving extremely popular with teachers as a way of illustrating their lessons.

Then there's the 'popular geology' resources, which include BGS's highly successful schools seismology project, and a 'download and cut-out' model of the ash-producing Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull.

While it's simple for the user, there's some sophisticated software working hard behind the scenes. Because the maps can be delivered via KML files and web map services it's possible to 'mash' them with data from entirely different sources. Mash-up applications have real scientific value. A good example is the recent map of the land-cover history and surface geology of East Anglia since the Domesday Book, which was based on BGS superficial and offshore geology, selected land-cover data, administrative and geographic boundaries from Ordnance Survey OpenData, and global coastline data from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (see the image below).

The response to OpenGeoscience has been astonishing. The launch got widespread media coverage - even knocking the Copenhagen climate summit off the BBC Science & Environment website's top spot at one point. On launch day our map server was delivering over 1,000 files per second, and the BGS website received three times its regular traffic during that month. But why?

Map of of East Anglia's land-cover history and surface geology

Map of of East Anglia's land-cover history and surface geology

There are lots of reasons, some of them fairly obscure to the average visitor. The geospatial information industry likes it because web mapping demonstrates the usefulness of web standards applications. The European Commission approves because it complies with the INSPIRE environmental information directive, now part of UK law. The research and education sectors like it because of the free resources it puts at their disposal. Dr Steve Drury, Senior Lecturer in Remote Sensing at the Open University, foresees the website will become "a kind of 'Google Rock' for a great many people".

The public likes OpenGeoscience because it brings information about UK geology into their homes in a way that's just not been possible before.

And BGS likes OpenGeoscience too. The website has raised the visibility of BGS and NERC science and that's always a good thing. But its success also demonstrates that there's a nation of users out there hungry for online information about their 'place'. Try it for yourself, and find out what's beneath your feet.

Richard Hughes is director of information & knowledge exchange at BGS.

Access OpenGeoscience - external link and tell us what you think.