Repurposed software puts learning on the map

A website for school-goers with archival maps, satellite images and aerial photos was built ‘on a shoestring’

While pupils and teachers are in holiday mode at the moment preparations are in place for more than 865,000 students in 4,000 primary and second-level schools accessing the latest maps service from Scoilnet, designed for students in subjects such as geography, history and maths.

Launched last year, the Scoilnet Maps service distriputes maps and images directly from Ordnance Survey Ireland and draws on dozens of open data layers made available by the Department of Environment and other agencies.

The maps service offers a range of features that support teaching and learning, including “spotlight” and “swipe” tools that help teachers to highlight locations and compare aerial photos with maps. Teachers can also flip between historical maps to give pupils a visual perspective on change. It also features an “elevation” tool to study cross-sections, map contours, landscape and terrain.

Based on software developed by ESRI Ireland, Scoilnet maps give pupils the opportunity to experience real-world technology and develop skills that will equip them for adult life.The Scoilnet website features an easy-to-use interface that is suitable for students of all ages.


Scoilnet Maps was developed as a collaboration between Scoilnet, the Professional Development Service for Teachers and the forward planning unit of the Department of Education and Skills.

Launching the website last year, Minister for Education and Skills, Ruairí Quinn TD said Scoilnet Maps was "an excellent example of the public sector doing much more with less." Scoilnet Maps cost €35,000 in 2012 compared to a price of €236,000 when the project was first tendered in 2007.

Interactive tools
The service allows students to see maps dating from 1829, satellite images, layers of geographical information, aerial photos and interactive tools to assist learning.

Karin Whooley, national co-ordinator of Scoilnet, says that Scoilnet Maps was developed "on a shoestring" when they found the previous system in place was too expensive. Whooley says she discovered the Department of the Environment was using a free open-source map viewer and got in touch with Ordnance Survey Ireland to negotiate a deal.

“We were repurposing something that the Department of Environment and Education are using already. It has a slightly different look but it cost buttons in comparison to what we were previously paying.”

Whooley says the introduction of a laptop and projector to every classroom in Ireland means Scoilnet Maps only require a broadband connection to work. “It can run on a 2Mb connection. Nearly all post-primary schools have 100Mb broadband and all of them will have 100Mb broadband by 2014.”

Whooley explains OSI has a commercial remit and can’t give away its data for nothing but also has an educational remit which means they were able to get the maps for a reduced price. “We got it for much less than it should have been but their co-operation and willingness to engage on the costs means 865,000 students will have access to the technology now.”

She says the reason the OSI maps are essential, rather than using other maps, is because students are examined on OSI maps.

"Many primary schools are in rural areas or are in small townlands. Students love being able to see their granny's house and it makes the subject real for them."

Continued development
Whooley says they hope to continue to develop the system: "It uses Flash so it can't be used on iPads but we hope to eventually make it device independent. It's a cost we can't weather now because the fact that we have it in classrooms is nothing short of miraculous. Right now all it requires is the laptop and a projector in the classroom."

Tony Murphy, market development manager for OSI, says that as a public body, OSI has an educational remit and assists educational projects by giving 80 per cent discounts to educational or university bodies off their commercial prices.

Murphy says that from an OSI perspective, they're keen to get children to use their maps and see how mapping affects subjects beyond the confines of the classroom. "When you look at a town like Rochfordbridge, Co Westmeath, between 1995 to 2005 you can see the Celtic Tiger in action. Pupils can see what effect it had on planning and the economy of the town as it mushroomed," says Murphy.

Murphy believes knowledge of maps prepares students for any career. “Mapping is not just about geography or geology. It covers everything from marketing, transport to health analysis.”

Chief technology officer at ESRI, Eamonn Doyle says they will continue to develop the Scoilnet Maps technology.

“We have created a content platform so people can add in extra content. It would be possible for a two-way dialogue between local authorities and schools so students could get involved in collecting information. Kids could use their smartphones to take photos and feed them through the data base so there’s all kinds of potential.”