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Geographic information touches the life of most people in Scotland at one time or another. It may be helpful to place this strategy in context with some definitions of geographic information and some examples of its application.


Geographic information is a wide-ranging term, used to describe any data collected about places on the earth's surface. Places can be identified by a computer as areas, points or lines, and the computer can also store any data collected about the place, or the people who are associated with it. The computer-based systems that capture, store, analyse and present these data are known as Geographic Information Systems ( GIS).

There are three main types of geographic information.

  • Physical and map-based data. (The Spaces of Scotland). This is information about the physical land surface and the boundaries that can be drawn upon it. Further data can be added to describe the areas so defined. This is known as geographically referenced data. For example, a local authority has a physical boundary that can be drawn on a map. Associated with the local authority is a huge range of information, which can range from the simple ( e.g. its name and standard code) to the complex statistical data summarising social and economic activity. This information has traditionally been collected and managed using Geographic Information Systems ( GIS), referenced through the Ordnance Survey's National Grid (for land based information) or latitude/longitude projection systems for offshore data. Increasingly such GIS are used to collate data other than basic physical and boundary information. Socio-economic, statistical and text-based information are now routinely stored, analysed and presented by GIS.

  • Address data. (The Faces of Scotland) This is information about addresses and the people who live there. This includes all geographically referenced information collected about people, including socio-economic, health and attitudinal data. The basic units of information are the postal address and postcode, together with any information that can be associated with them, describing the property or the people who live there. Information about addresses is referenced in databases by means of a geographical index, and the basic units can be aggregated in various ways for statistical purposes, into administrative boundaries and wider classifications of area, known as "higher geographies". These include census output areas, data zones and the European statistical classification hierarchy known as NUTS (Nomenclature for Units of Territorial Statistics). This information has traditionally been managed by statistical analysis and presentation techniques. Increasingly GIS are used to analyse and present this information.

  • Place name data. (The Places of Scotland) Most, if not all, geographic features and places have a name. This might refer to a town, hill or river. These names allow us to catalogue and retrieve geographically referenced text-based and graphical information about the place and the people who live there. This is one of the basic elements of library, museum and other archive catalogues, and traditionally such information has been managed by libraries, museums and the national archive systems. Such name-based archives are not an immediately obvious source of geographic information, but in fact provide an enormously rich background source of information about Scotland's places and people. Place names are referenced in gazetteer systems. Increasingly names are the first element in searching for information about places with computer search tools that use the name of the place as the key to the archive. Such techniques have the potential to unlock Scotland's "hidden wealth" of archived information about its places and people, but are currently limited by the lack of a standardised approach to place names in Scotland. This was raised as a significant issue during consultation on the draft Strategy and subsequently, particularly with regard to Gaelic place-names. This issue will be investigated further as part of the implementation plan for the Strategy.

Each of these types of geographic information has three components:

  • The basic geographic data, whether physical, address or name based.

  • The coding data about the geographies that provide a standard referencing/context system. These may be the latitude/longitude system, Ordnance Survey Grid References, addresses, post codes or gazetteer systems.

  • The geographically referenced data that is associated with the physical space, address based face or text based place in Scotland. In GIS terms this is the "attribute" data collected about physical entities on the earth's surface. All statistical data collected about Scotland falls into this category, as does all text-based and graphical information that refers to particular places.

The distinctions between these categories may seem complex, but they are important in defining the different elements that make up the geographic data and information that describe and characterise Scotland.

Whilst in practice all such information can be contained within a Geographic Information System, there have been critical differences between them in terms of who manages each and how they are managed. However, improvements in data management technology and GIS mean that such traditional distinctions between these types of data and the ways they are stored, managed and used are now less relevant. Digital spatial or geographic data can, potentially, be stored as a single entity, regardless of the original nature of the data. However, there are still critical differences between these types of information depending on who manages them and how they are managed. It is one of the crucial aims of this Strategy to minimise such artificial barriers between the types of geographic information. Therefore, in this Strategy, while each of these terms will be used as appropriate, the term geographic information is used to refer to all three types of data, and their individual components.


In one form or another, geographic information supports virtually every aspect of the work of the public sector in Scotland, for both central and local government. It is equally important for the private, community, voluntary and academic sectors. Sometimes the use of geographic information is explicit, and the benefits are clearly apparent. In other cases the role of geographic information is less directly obvious. The following examples are a small selection of the uses of geographic information in supporting policy and service delivery for Scotland.

Geographic information is at the heart of the work of central government. For example, GI supports virtually every aspect of the work if the Scottish Executive. Some examples are:

  • Service delivery

  • The agriculture subsidy programme for Scotland, worth £500 million per annum would not operate efficiently without the basic ability to identify individual fields using GIS.

  • Geographic information is fundamental to the development and maintenance programmes for Scotland's trunk road network.

  • Policy Development

  • GIS has been fundamental in developing the basic definitions of rural and urban Scotland that are essential to underpin all rural development and support policies.

  • Development of policies for health, social inclusion, justice and education are based on up-to-date and accurate statistics, which in most cases are collected for specific geographic areas.

  • Policy Implementation.

  • Scotland's system for land use and property planning and development control, is based entirely on information about geographic information and specific properties.

  • Renewable energy policy is based on knowledge about impact of developments on particular geographic areas.

Virtually every other central government agency and Non-Departmental Public Body ( NDPB) also uses geographic information as the basis of many of its activities.


  • Registers of Scotland creates and maintains the definitive record of interests in property for Scotland.

  • The General Register Office for Scotland is responsible for Scotland's census. Results are produced for specific areas - 'census output areas' created from individual postcode and address information.

  • The Royal Commission for Ancient and Historical Monuments for Scotland maintains the record of Scotland's archaeological heritage, based on specific information about the location of individual monuments and sites.

  • The Scottish Environment Protection Agency's regulatory functions are dependent on geographic information, including knowledge of environmental quality and identification of the location of pollution incidents.

  • Scottish Natural Heritage and the Forestry Commission share geographic information with the Scottish Executive to ensure that there is no overlap of public subsidy for land use in Scotland.

Most local government services are location based services. This ranges from the pragmatic (the location of the nearest recycling facility) to the critical (the addresses of children at risk). The Definitive National Address Project for Scotland ( DNAS) will develop a standardised approach to the management of addresses by local authorities, and other bodies.

Scotland's health services are dependent on information based round a specific location - health centre, hospital, dental surgery etc, or based round a specific person - the patient, who has an address and postcode.

Scotland's emergency services are dependent on information about location, as emergency vehicles must be targeted to an accurate location, travelling by the quickest possible route.

The requirements for geographic information of the voluntary sector, charities and community groups mirror that of the public and private sector. However, the cost of systems and data can often constrain the actual use of geographic information by these sectors.


It is widely recognised that the use of geographic information allows better resource allocation and improved working arrangements within and between organisations. Therefore action to improve the way we manage and use geographic information will provide benefits for the public, private and voluntary sectors and for the people of Scotland.

A good example of the potential benefits of using geographic information is at the core of the Scottish Executive's policy. The Executive's vision for Scotland is laid out in "A Partnership for a Better Scotland", under the main themes:

  • Growing Scotland's economy.

  • Delivering excellent public services.

  • Supporting stronger, safer communities.

  • Developing a confident, democratic Scotland.

Most of the policy objectives could be supported by geographic information, as three random examples of policy commitments show.

Example 1 - "We will extend the neighbourhood warden scheme across Scotland and continue to evaluate its success". 2

  • Geographic information will allow identification of the priority areas for neighbourhood wardens by using social and crime statistics for particular areas to identify the need for a warden scheme, ensuring that warden schemes are distributed in a cost efficient and effective manner across communities.

Example 2 - "We will support measures to improve the availability of affordable, quality, healthy food in low income areas" 3

  • Implementation of this policy will be dependent on geographic information that defines "low income areas" establishes where they are and provides the basic information about the availability of such food and the impact in health and socio-economic terms.

Example 3 - "We will ensure sufficient resources are available for the non-trunk road network, particularly recognising the needs of pressurised rural roads affected by timber production and other primary industries" 4

  • Geographic information will be fundamental to the definition of the non-trunk road network and the fundamental differentiation into rural and urban Scotland. GIS can provide the basic information on the state of each road/section of road, the demands made on it and the location of the forestry/other industrial activity. GIS can also model and predict the potential future loading on any individual road or section of road.


Geographic information is the basis of the Scottish Neighbourhood Statistics Project that will provide the information to support and evaluate many of the commitments in the "Partnership Agreement". This Project exemplifies the wide range of geographic information needed by government and the need to move away from traditional approaches to the collection and management of physical, statistical and address-based geographies. Specifically, the SNS Project is creating standard statistical boundaries derived from address based geographies.