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Digitisers of the realm

The British Geological Survey is continuing to develop a range of digital databases and geological models for the UK, drawing on the vast array of information in its archives, which date back to 1835.

When the British Geological Survey launched its new corporate strategy in November 1999, it marked a complete sea-change in the way it operated.The survey's approach switched from systematic surveying and data collection to one of dissemination of knowledge and meeting the needs of its users.

One of the key initiatives has been the creation of the Geoscience Integrated Database system (geo-IDS), says BGS director of information services and management Ian Jackson.

'The overall aim is to introduce a coherent approach to database policy and practice in the BGS, ' he says.

A vast array of information is held in the BGS archives.

This is in a variety of forms, from modern digital survey data to field notebooks of Victorian geologists dating back as far as 1835 when the survey was founded. BGS wanted to create a single, mapped and searchable data repository and geo-IDS is the result of three years of work, due for completion this year.

A major element of the new BGS strategy is to switch focus and resources away from conventional media output to internet delivery of data.

The Geoscience Data Index (GDI) is the web-based search engine of geo-IDS that allows staff (through the BGS intranet) and customers (via the survey's website launched last year) to search the BGS files. Some details of geological, geophysical, geochemical, hydrogeological and geotechnical surveys are available free of charge, with more detailed information available to paying customers, who can order on-line.

The starting point for a data search is a map of mainland UK (offshore survey data is also available). Users click on the area they are interested in, selecting the types of information they want displayed: solid and drift geology (at 1:625,000 scale) borehole locations, hydrogeology, geophysical data and even false colour Landsat satellite imagery, for example.

Because the data is overlaid on digital Ordnance Survey information, it can be viewed at a variety of scales.

Depending on the information requested, the system selects the most appropriate topographic scale, with only some datasets being visible within certain scale ranges.

One of the main aims of GDI is to allow users to narrow down their search as far as possible before having to request and pay for information (one of the most frequent requests from site investigation companies is BGS borehole records, for example).This simplified enquiry and ordering process can now be carried out electronically.

BGS is also investigating ways to store and retrieve text documents, with the aim of developing a digital report generating system, eventually over the internet. This will allow geoscientific reports on a specific area or geoscientific theme to generated 'semi-automatically' on the basis of customer requests.

Segments of text, along with their associated diagrams, pictures, tables and references, can be linked through a geographical information system, or potentially a 3D model.

As well as allowing customers to specify the scope of reports, Jackson says it will also allow efficient reuse of text - 'For example, a particular outcrop description is written only once.'

Existing reports have been 'tagged' so that the system will retrieve them, but in the future, text will be written specifically for it, Jackson says.

Behind these 'front-end' developments is the digitising of geological map data under the DigMap programme, which has been running since 1997. Although digitising has been carried out since the 1980s, the first systems were primarily developed to help map production.

Data is grouped under four geological themes (although it is not available at all scales): solid and drift geology; artificial deposits; and mass-movement deposits.

Data is structured using common standards: common geological dictionaries; common graphic structures; and production techniques.

Maps are available on four scales. The two 1:625,000 sheets covering the UK (solid and drift) and the 1:250,000 series were finished some time ago and the 1:50,000 series (a total of 534 maps) is nearing completion.

Although some areas are subject to new field surveys and data will not be available until 2009, the BGS says 95% of the UK will be covered at this scale in 2001.The next stage is to digitise some of the 1:10,000 sheets covering urban areas.

And when new survey information is acquired, all the maps at the different scales will be updated accordingly.

BGS says this will mean that DigMap will reflect the most up-to-date and authorised geological information in the UK.

Digital geological map data is now available, under licence, to external users, with the cost dependent on coverage (areas and themes), the degree of data customisation and licence duration. Data is available in common CAD/GIS formats such as ArcView, MapInfo and Microstation.

Future developments will include the ability to obtain licences and order small amounts of digital map data over the internet.

DigMap data in turn forms a vital component of the Digital Geological Spatial Model (DGSM), considered fundamental to the future growth of the BGS.

'The DGSM marks a whole new philosophy for the BGS in terms of how it will acquire, organise and describe its data, ' Jackson says.

This four-dimensional geological model of the UK, which has been allocated £4.5M over the next five years, will gradually be built up using data from all the other areas of BGS.

'It consists of two main elements: DGSM-Framework, which will construct the three- and four-dimensional architecture, standards, software applications and procedures; and DGSM-UK, the population of the framework, ' Jackson explains.

Eventually, the UK will be represented by a series of three-dimensional digital structural models at various resolutions. The model will form the basis of all two- and three-dimensional models of structures and rock-mass properties, as well as BGS's research into geoscientific processes.

There will be links between spatial models and observational data (including geological, hydrogeological and geophysical), information contained in reports and publications, photographs, diagrams and statistics, allowing all available information on any rock body in the country to be gathered.

'The future success of the BGS and other national surveys is likely to depend as much on how we manage and disseminate our current knowledge as on how we acquire more, ' says Jackson. 'Understanding users' needs and exploiting IT to meet those needs will be critical.'

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