University College London

21st August 2015
Esri UK

University College London

UCL uses Esri’s to train students how to use GIS to solve complex world challenges in areas such as crime, environmental change, transport, public health and epidemiology. This case study describes a research project that uses to examine the distribution of families.

The Customer

University College London (UCL) is renowned worldwide for its GIS research, both within the Geography department and CASA (the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis). UCL was the first university in the UK to have a lecturer in Geography and examining the spatial world has been in UCL’s DNA for quite some time. In 1833, the newly-founded University of London (now UCL), appointed Captain Alexander Maconochie, Secretary to the Royal Geographical Society, as its first professor of geography. In more modern times, UCL has played an instrumental role in the development of GIS. Roger Tomlinson, often considered the ‘father’ of GIS, wrote what is arguably the first GIS PhD thesis during his time at UCL. is used to spatially analyse the distribution of surnames for 300 million people in 26 countries

This research project will support historical, genealogical and chromosome research

Students gain experience and skills in using GIS, helping to increase their value to future employers

The Challenge

With a research mission based around a series of ‘Grand Challenges’, UCL’s GIS research work is helping solve problems found in the areas of crime, environmental change, transport, public health and epidemiology.

“In the past, socioeconomic and geo demographic classifications have provided fixed indicators of the social, economic and demographic characteristics of people living within an area. Often regarded as static reports, the output was achieved using fixed data. Today, UCL is using Esri software to develop new real-time, dynamic GIS techniques, which will deliver a lot more value, to users,” concludes Paul Longley, Professor of Geographic Information Science at University College London.

Real-time, bespoke, geo-demographic GIS applications are the next challenge being tackled by the team at UCL and the recent launch of will help them become a reality.

Today, UCL is using Esri software to develop new real-time, dynamic GIS techniques, which will deliver a lot more value, to users

Paul Longley – Professor of Geographic Information Science

The Solution

Recent achievements include the creation of applications which process incredibly large datasets and also perform analysis fast enough for the application to be of value to the online user. One groundbreaking project examines the spatial distribution of families via their surnames.

Using a database spanning 300 million people in 26 countries, advanced GIS techniques are being applied to examine how value can be derived from such data. Surnames, for example, provide a useful source of information for the analysis of population structure, migrations, genetic relationships and levels of cultural diffusion and interaction between communities.

“The spatial distribution of a surname can tell you a lot about the kind of people who have that name”, explained James Cheshire PhD student and author “We’ve started to extract different conclusions on the spatial history of surnames by applying GIS in new ways, which is useful for understanding issues such as population genetics, or tracing historical migration into Britain during the last 1,000 years or so.”

ArcGIS has helped UCL overcome a range of challenges throughout the course of the project, including dealing with a large International database containing many different data formats, projections and levels of granularity.

It is important that students work with industry-standard software such as Esri, as it helps prepare them for jobs in a range of sectors

Paul Longley – Professor of Geographic Information Science

The Benefits

When the research is completed, it could easily support historical and genealogical and chromosome research, the examination of settlement trends of ethnic groups, family migration history and even product marketing.

In addition, surnames have been used to develop Onomap classification, (www.onomap. org), where users can take a forename and surname and pinpoint a person’s geographic origins. This can help breakdown the often simple of crude ethnicity categories in a census, to gain a deeper understanding of a population’s structure at neighbourhood scale. is an Esri website for sharing GIS content and building communities. Visitors can access a number of free, ready-to-use base maps for projects and applications, including community maps that have been built with data from organisations around the world; or easily create maps and mash-ups quickly using a JavaScript Web Mapping application. Server based GIS development has taken a big step forward as users can upload complex GIS applications and maps, accessible for anyone to use. It overcomes the issue of working with multiple data formats in a distributed environment and allows users to create mash-ups with Esri created base maps.

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