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Understanding different points of view

In the town of Lurgan in Northern Ireland, ArcGIS is not just transforming the way that geography is taught in the classroom; it is also bringing together students from different religious communities. Lurgan College has used ArcGIS mobile solutions to help build bridges between young people from different parts of the town and give students an unprecedented level of understanding of other points of view.

Esri’s Survey123 app allows students to record their feelings in different parts of the town on their smartphones

ArcGIS displays students’ views on an interactive map, promoting understanding and initiating conversations

Esri Ireland and GeoMentors provide ongoing support for Lurgan College, helping it introduce new GIS projects

Why GIS?

“Why would you not want to use GIS in schools?” asks geography teacher Alistair Hamill. “GIS is geography in the real world, so young people need to know that it exists.” Hamill has been the driving force behind the introduction of GIS into geography lessons at Lurgan College, a selective, non-denominational, co-educational Grammar School in Northern Ireland for young people between the ages of 14 and 19.

Located in County Armagh, around 18 miles south west of Belfast, the town of Lurgan has historically experienced a high level of tension between Catholic and Protestant populations and was the scene of many acts of sectarian violence in the past. After attending a workshop held by Esri Ireland, Hamill was inspired to use GIS not only as a tool for teaching geography in his classroom, but also as a way to bring young people from different communities in the town closer together.

The use of GIS was transformative in how it enabled students to understand the points of view of other students from different schools, with different backgrounds.

Alistair Hamill

Geography Teacher, Lurgan College

Benefits for students

With support from Esri Ireland and free access to Esri’s ArcGIS technology, through the ArcGIS for Schools programme, Hamill successfully launched an initiative that has had a profound impact on students’ perceptions of other people from different religious backgrounds.

Using Esri’s Survey123 solution, he built an app which students could use on their own mobile phones to record how they felt at different locations around the town. Then, through the town’s ‘Shared Education’ programme, he brought together students from different schools and took them to Catholic and Protestant areas that they wouldn’t normally go to, guided by a local police officer.

All the data collected about students’ perceptions of different locations was captured anonymously on interactive maps, using ArcGIS, enabling the students to explore others’ feelings. “The use of GIS was transformative in how it enabled students to understand the points of view of other students from different schools, with different backgrounds,” Hamill says. “We found that students were very honest in recording their feelings at locations where they didn’t feel comfortable and this led to very powerful conversations.”

The project broke down barriers between students from different areas in an unprecedented way, paving the way for greater community cohesion in the future. “Using ArcGIS, students could see that not everyone from the same school felt the same way, which challenged established stereotypes and promoted better understanding of other communities,” Hamill says.

While this particular project is ground-breaking and awe-inspiring, Lurgan College is also using ArcGIS in more conventional ways, in classrooms, to support the teaching of GCSE and A level geography. For example, in one project, students have used ArcGIS to study downstream changes in the Glendum river valley. “The ability to view the topology of an area in 3D, using ArcGIS, helps students to better understand the landscape,” Hamill says.

The use of GIS has also expanded out of the geography department and into other faculties at Lurgan College. For example, the Survery123 perceptions app was used by a group of history students during a recent trip to Belfast. Through projects like this, Lurgan College is making it possible for a larger number of students to gain experience of using GIS technology and build digital skills for life.


Esri Ireland and GeoMentors are only ever a phone call or email away. Whenever we need some know-how, there is a team of people we can contact for help.

Alistair Hamill

Geography Teacher, Lurgan College

The teacher’s perspective

Since signing up to Esri Ireland’s ArcGIS for Schools programme, Hamill has been able to transform the teaching of geography at Lurgan College and provide eye-opening new opportunities for students throughout the town – and he hopes that his experiences will inspire others. To teachers who may be considering using ArcGIS for the first time, he says, “Give it a go. ArcGIS will help you teach geography better and could provide a gateway to amazing things.”

He is keen to point out that the way Lurgan College has used ArcGIS and Survey123 to survey opinions could be replicated by other schools to explore different scenarios, including socio-economic or ethnic divides. “GIS provides a very effective way to explore a wide range of complex issues,” he says.

Hamill recognises that teaching with GIS may be daunting at first, especially for teachers, like himself, who did not have the opportunity to learn GIS at university or in their prior careers. He benefited from the support of a PGCE student who had experience of using GIS and was fortuitously training at his college. In addition, he attended free training events organised by Esri Ireland and tapped into the expertise of Esri Ireland’s extended team of GIS ambassadors, called GeoMentors. “Esri Ireland and GeoMentors are only ever a phone call or email away,” Hamill says. “Whenever we need some know-how, there is a team of people we can contact for help.”

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