Counting on geographers
As UK citizens get ready to complete their census returns next month, it will be geographers such as Professor David Martin from the University of Southampton who help the government, businesses and communities make the most of the rich data that the ten-yearly survey produces.
For more than 200 years, the census has charted the changing nature of UK society, as the population grew from 10.5 million in 1801 to 58.7 million in 2001. Statistics on migration, employment and changing lifestyles have helped policymakers to plan for the needs of society. Although the same questions are generally asked across the whole country, the potential for comparing the results from different areas hasn’t been fully exploited in the past. But now, geographers are stepping in to provide solutions.
areas hasn’t been fully exploited
Professor Martin has developed a new technique that enables local areas to be compared on a like-for-like basis using geographic information systems. The automated system allows 200,000 geographically defined ‘output areas’ to be compared spatially and over time. Because the areas have a consistent population size, it’s possible to track patterns in inequality, ethnicity and housing trends more consistently. The distribution of government funding based on census data organised in this way will ensure that services are more likely to reach those most in need.
that enables local areas to be compared on a like-for-like basis using geographic information systems. The automated system allows 200,000 geographically defined ‘output areas’ to be compared spatially and over time. Because the areas have a consistent population size, it’s possible to track patterns in inequality, ethnicity
The data have also been incorporated into the Office of National Statistics’ Neighbourhood Statistics Service – a website via which communities can find information about their local area at no cost that receives two million page views a month.
‘The 2011 census will provide one of the richest data sources from which to investigate the major issues facing our society today, such as patterns of ageing, migration, ethnicity and families,’ said Professor Martin.
society today, such as patterns of ageing, migration, ethnicity and families,’ said Professor Martin.
‘For many purposes, small areas are the most use-
‘For many purposes, small areas are the most useful lens through which to explore these themes,
revealing the unique character revealing the unique character and needs of local communities.
‘The advent of web tools such as Google Earth and mobile phone mapping apps have greatly increased awareness of geography, and we can look forward to some brilliant new mapping tools following the census,’ he continued. ‘This year will also see the start of a wide-ranging debate about the need for future censuses compared to how much could be derived from other geographically referenced databases.’ Work such as Professor Martin’s has been included in a series of case studies that the Society has published online (www.rgs.org/makingthecase) to demonstrate how geographers are helping to address some of the key environmental, social and economic challenges facing the UK, while also saving public money, improving quality of life, and shaping government policy. From flood management to urban regeneration, the welfare of children in the asylum process and road safety, geographers are involved across industry and society, and the website is constantly being updated to include more case studies.
Advocacy for geography is an essential part of the Society’s work – in secondary and higher education, fieldwork, and research. Whether advising policymakers on the direction of curriculum changes, or demonstrating to ministers the value of geographical research, there has never been a more important time for the Society to ‘make the case’ for geography.
■ To find out more about the Society’s policy work, visit www.rgs.org/policy
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16 www.geographical.co.uk FEBRUARY 2011