Humphrey Southall looks at a new Web site's Vision of Britain while Emma Place examines new changes to the RDN Virtual Training Suite.

Vision of Britain

A new Web site allowing free public access to an unrivalled collection of British historic maps, statistics and stories went live in October 2004. By keying in a postcode or place name, or clicking on a map, users can call up a wealth of information on any locality.

The Lottery-funded Vision of Britain Web site [1] has been created by my team at the Great Britain Historical Geographical Information System [2] based at Portsmouth University. It includes approaching 10 million words of text describing both Britain as a whole, and individual towns and villages: the introductions to every census 1801-1961; entries from descriptive gazetteers; and journeys around Britain by authors like Celia Fiennes [3]. It also holds three sets of one-inch maps covering Great Britain at different dates.

All this provides a more rounded picture of Britain's changing communities, but also possibly obscures what is at the heart of the system: probably the biggest unified collection of social statistics for Britain ever assembled. Most such collections contain data sets, with two distinct levels of organisation and documentation. This enables social scientists to download data sets for further analysis, but our system is designed for non-experts interested in places as much as topics, and directly generates maps and graphs. We therefore hold all statistics in one column of a single database table, currently with over 10 million rows.

So how does this work? Other columns of that table contextualise data, mainly by linking to three major sub-systems, each a significant reference resource:

  • Source: Our primary source is the Census of Population. The system holds complete lists of censuses covering Great Britain between 1801 and 1961, of all the reports published by each census, and of all the tables in each report. For each individual data value, we record the table it comes from, the column and the row, so we can reconstruct the original table.
  • What: Another sub-system implements the Data Documentation Initiative's [4] Aggregate Data Extension. It organises values into logical structures called nCubes, defined by the underlying census variable: an nCube might be age in 5-year bands, by sex. Our software then knows to graph the data as a population pyramid. This data documentation sub-system is quite independent of the system recording sources, linking data from different censuses to assemble time series. It includes various classifications of occupations, causes of death and so on, and can map between them.
  • Where: Every data value is linked to one of over 51,000 administrative units, from "Great Britain" down to individual parishes and below: our gazetteer is a systematic record of what units existed, when and by what names. It was created by computerising and enhancing the place-name authorities [5] identified by the National Council on Archives. For over 21,000 of these units, including the main census reporting units, the system holds computerised boundary lines, and our software brings together statistics and boundaries to create statistical maps. It can include excerpts from scanned historic maps as backcloths.
  • When: the date or period covered by the data value.

So what data are in there?

  • Every census parish-level table 1851-1961, the 1851 table listing populations back to 1801.
  • Full cause of death by age and sex, data by decade, 1851 to 1911.
  • The enormously detailed 1841 occupation report, listing 3,517 separate occupations.
  • A large part of the original Key Statistics release of 2001 census data for modern local authorities [6], plus equivalent data from many earlier censuses redistricted to the same units.

All this and much more is in the system. Currently some data can only be presented in a simplified form.

The Web site presents mainly local information in a user-friendly way, but the underlying data structure is designed to support other access methods. Firstly, via Web services such as the Open Geospatial Consortium's [7] Web Map Server protocol, already operational, and the Alexandria Digital Library's Gazetteer Service Protocol [8]. Secondly, the very regular data structure is well suited to grid computing, and exploration by automated pattern-seekers such as the Geographical Analysis Machine [9].

Changes to the Virtual Training Suite

As many readers will already know, SOSIG offers 18 free, 'teach-yourself' online tutorials to help students and staff develop their Internet research skills in different social science subject areas [10]. (These tutorials are part of the RDN's Virtual Training Suite [11] ). What readers may not realise however is that all these tutorials are being regularly updated, edited and maintained by subject specialists across the UK.

Regular updating of the tutorials is a necessity in order to ensure that it continues to provide high quality advice to staff, students and researchers on searching the Internet effectively in their subject areas.

Recently Updated Tutorials

Over the past six months the following tutorials have had a major overhaul. This doesn't mean just a link-check, it means subject experts re-assessing what the best advice for those using the Internet for research in their subject would now be, given recent changes and developments in the Internet. The subject experts are as follows:

  • Internet Anthropologist
    Dr Hector Blackhurst, John Rylands University Library of Manchester
  • Internet for Business Studies and Internet Business Manager
    Kate Sharp and Andy Hargrave, Biz/ed, University of Bristol
  • Internet Economist
    Dr. Martin Poulter of the HE Academy, Economics Network
  • Internet Politician and Internet for Government
    Heather Dawson, London School of Economics & Political Science
  • Internet for Lawyers
    Sue Pettit, The Law Library, University of Bristol
  • Internet for Social Research Methods
    Lousie Corti, UK Data Archive, University of Essex
  • Internet Sociologist
    Rosarie Coughlan, Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Internet for Women's Studies
    Dianne Shepherd, Women's Library, London Metropolitan University

Here are some examples of the edits and updates these editors have made to their tutorials:

Internet Updates in Politics and Government

Heather Dawson notes a particularly pressing need for updates in the field of government and politics where the constantly evolving nature of current affairs means that new interest groups and political parties arise while others disappear from view. For instance, she has to constantly check the currency of government departmental names and descriptions as UK public bodies, which have an alarming habit of regularly changing their title and function! A recent example was the restructuring of the Lord Chancellor's Department to create a new Department of Constitutional Affairs.

Heather also identified a fundamental change that has been reflected in this year's revamp of the 'Internet Politician' and 'Internet for Government' tutorials - the increasing use of weblogs to communicate political research. When the VTS (Virtual Training Suite) was originally created these were almost non-existent, and many of those available were low quality, however, they are now being used by leading think tanks, such as the Adam Smith Institute [12] and DEMOS [13], as a means to develop important new ideas. Consequently, this summer a section on weblogs was added to these tutorials to ensure that students were aware of this resource and the type of information they might find there.

Finally, Heather points out that the number of e-print and e-thesis archives accessible on the Internet is growing, and so more information about these will be added to the tutorials in the future.

Internet Updates in Economics

Dr. Martin Poulter has re-written the 'Internet Economist' tutorial to reflect the greater availability of economic discussion and opinion online. For example, so much of this year's American election related to economics, that it acted as a catalyst to online postings from economists and think tanks. This year therefore, he added a whole new section to this tutorial, called 'Opinions and Commentary' which lists the sites of some major newspapers which publish their opinion columns online. He also added some popular blogs written by economics lecturers based in the USA.

Dr. Poulter also notes that there is now greater provision of interactive materials for economics, with networked resources replacing software as the forward-looking medium for eLearning. He has therefore, added a number of new learning and teaching resources to the TOUR sections of this tutorial.

Internet Updates in Social Research Methods

Lousie Corti made extensive changes to the 'Internet for Social Research methods' tutorial this year, which reflect some interesting Internet developments in this field.

Firstly, some important new initiatives for social research have emerged in the last two years that needed to be added to the tutorial. JISC's new Economic and Social Data Service (ESDS) [14] was established as a new federated service; the ESRC launched its new Research Methods Programme [15] and its new National Centre for eSocial Science (NCeSS) [16].

Louise also noticed that electronic journal provision has changed significantly in the three years since she originally wrote the tutorial. Many more journals are now available electronically, but the access routes to these versions keep changing, especially where subscriptions are involved. She has therefore updated the journals section of her tutorial.

Likewise bibliographic databases are always changing in their coverage and in the number of items they record and so updates were made to the descriptions of the big databases for social sciences which will be a key tool for researchers.

A lot of server names had changed, making URLs invalid. This was particularly the case for funded projects which later evolved into services under new funding and organisational models.

JISCmail lists are, by their nature, going to come and go as new online discussion groups are set up and others go quiet or die altogether.


The ways in which the Internet supports work in the social sciences is ever-changing, and SOSIG aims to reflect new trends as they emerge in its virtual training tutorials. Librarians, lecturers and students can therefore rely on this free Internet training service in the knowledge that it is being carefully updated by members of the social science community.


  1. Vision of Britain Through Time
  2. Great Britain Historical GIS project
  3. Vision of Britain "home page" for Celia Fiennes
  4. Data Documentation Initiative
  5. National Council on Archives' Rules for the Construction of Names
  6. Office of National Statistics Key Statistics for Local Authorities
  7. Open Geospatial Consortium
  8. Alexandria Digital Library Gazetteer Development
  9. Geographical Analysis Machine
  10. SOSIG Virtual Training Suite
  11. RDN Virtual Training Suite
  12. Adam Smith Institute Weblog
  13. DEMOS
  14. Economic and Social Data Service (ESDS)
  15. ESRC Research Methods Programme
  16. ESRC National Centre for eSocial Science (NCeSS)

Author Details

Dr Humphrey Southall
Reader in Geography and Director,
Great Britain Historical GIS Project
Department of Geography,
University of Portsmouth
Buckingham Building,
Lion Terrace,
Portsmouth PO1 3HE

Tel: 02392 842500
Web site:

Emma Place
SOSIG Information Manager
University of Bristol
8-10 Berkeley Square
Bristol BS8 1HH

Web site:

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Date published: 
Sunday, 30 January 2005
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