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Geograph volunteers capture the country

Written by Fiona

June 27 2022

I wrote an article about a group of Geograph volunteers who are cataloguing every square kilometre of the UK landscape, from eyesore wheelie bins to picturesque lochs and hills. Read the article in The Scots Magazine. If you enjoyed reading this article, why not buy a Scots Magazine, or a subscription?

Sea Stacks, near to Towie, Aberdeenshire. Credit: Anne Burgess

The story of Geograph

When Anne Burgess suddenly walks away from her friends in the opposite direction, eyeing her GPS device, then stops and takes a photograph, no one makes a comment.

The retired tourism officer will then return, smiling in the knowledge she has “captured” another grid square image of Scotland.

“My friends are all accustomed to me now,” explains Anne. “It might look like I’m taking a photo for no obvious reason but the stopping point is when the GPS tells me I’ve crossed a gridline and reached a new square.”

Once home again in Fochabers, Moray, the keen walker, cyclist and photographer submits her photo to a unique online project called Geograph.

The aim of the initiative, which has charitable status, is to collect “geographically representative” photographs and information of every square kilometre of Britain and Ireland.

Geograph launched in 2005.

Since its launch in 2005, 13,567 volunteers contributors have submitted 7,126,918 images covering 281,594 Ordnance Survey (OS) grid squares. There are sister projects for Germany and the Channel Islands, too.

Anne herself has submitted 42,708 images over the past 17 years. She says: “Since I was a child, I’ve enjoyed taking photos of landscapes and Geograph seemed like a good way of using my pictures.

“In addition, I’ve always loved maps and before Geograph I used to label slides with the grid square they were in, so it has all been something of a natural progression for me.”

Geograph publishes photos of both rural and urban locations, from hills, mountains and lochs to post boxes, roads, railways and old buildings. The images are easily accessible on-line and free to use by the public.

Anne likes the goal of capturing the whole country photographically. She says: “Geograph is aiming for full coverage of everywhere, even the non-picturesque bits. For example, I’ve submitted images that might be considered an eyesore, even of wheely bins and a hole in the ground, 

“An important part of the project is to record change, including demolition, felling of forests, new buildings and restorations.”

Bog, Kildermorie, near to Creachan an Fhiodha, Highlands. Credit: Richard Webb
Norwick, near to Norwick, Shetland Islands. Credit: Richard Webb

Another contributor Richard Webb is also a veteran of Geograph and started by contributing photos of the area around his home in Edinburgh in 2005. He has now submitted 142,118 images.

The recently retired chemistry teacher, who is also a moderator of the website, says: “Initially, I liked the idea of compiling a photographic essay around Edinburgh, with an aspect of geography illustrated by each square. 

“At that stage the ambitions of the site were to try to get a single photograph for as many squares as possible. Then, I just kept going and I’ve taken photos in many different locations.” 

He believes the project provides a valuable national archive and gallery, especially for educational purposes.

He says: “It is a good resource when covering other subjects. Usually, you can find relevant and local images quickly for any subject.”

Richard has travelled widely according to an extensive map of his Geograph photos, from a summit near Norwick, on northern Unst in the far north of the Shetland Isles; to a moorland edge close to to Widecombe in The Moor, Devon, in the south of England; and a ruined village near Ballynacallagh, Cork, Ireland, in the far south-west.

However, his main focus is Edinburgh and the neighbouring Scottish region of East Lothian.

He says: “Many of the photos have been taken when I am outdoors anyway enjoying my favourite activities of hill walking and cycle touring.

“For photos that are taken more deliberately for the website, it’s usually in urban and industrial areas.

“At the moment, I am trying to get every 100 metre by 100 metre square in Edinburgh, which is providing me with some wonderful bits of exploration of a city I thought I knew well.”

Sand and Water, near to Leith, Edinburgh. Credit: Anne Burgess

Like many contributors, both Anne and Richard have been attracted to a competitive element of Geograph. A leaderboard keeps track of various points, including “First Geograph” for being the first to submit a “Geograph” for the grid square, as well as “Second Visitor”, “Third Visitor” and “Fourth Visitor” points.

A contributor can gain a “TPoint” by submitting a contemporary photo to a square that hasn’t had a photo for five years.

Richard says: “At first, Geograph was very competitive with several of us going out most evenings to try to get squares that nobody else had.

“The sports element was a big thing and I can recall, for instance, wading out into the Firth of Forth to get a photo of a beacon off Seafield.

“Eventually, I was caught as the person with the most new squares by Omagh-based Kenny Allan. There wasn’t much competition in Ireland then, although I did enjoy pipping him to a few choice Tyrone bogs.  Bogs are my signature subject and I do still have the title for the most squares in Scotland.”

Anne, who is one of few women in the leaderboards, reveals she now only keeps track of the all-time personal points. 

She says: “After 17 years, there are much fewer ‘first Geographs’ to be gained and those that are available are all either in Ireland or pretty much inaccessible, so the competitive element has waned in importance. 

“I am slowly slipping down that ranking, largely because new squares are getting further and further away, and also because of the Covid pandemic limiting travel.”

Anne prefers to focus on other aspects of Geograph, including submitting photos on themes or topics. She has documented many walking routes in Scotland, and has numerous photos categorised under tags such as “wildflowers”, “paths”, “scree”, “derelict” and “cross grid” 

Richard continues his “bog” theme and has 6217 images in a “Lakes, Wetland, Bog” category, of which 1583 are “bog” only.  Under “railways” there are 3376 images to his name and “close look” showcases 1302 of his photos alone.

Geograph has so far mapped 84.7 per cent of the total grid squares – and many squares now have multiple images.

However, there are some places that have proved difficult to photograph, whether very remote or that do not allow public access, such as areas owned by the military.

Richard believes that with commitment to travel and explore most of the unvisited squares will be captured in time.

He says: “I don’t think there are any uncrackable grid squares, but there are still some awkward ones left.”

What is Geographing?

According to the project, Geographing is:

  • A game – how many grid squares will you contribute?
  • A geography project for the people
  • A national photography project
  • A  good excuse to get out more
  • A free and open online community project for all.

A Geograph leader

A leaderboard area of the website reveals a host of awards lists.

  • First Geograph Point: Points awarded for the first Geograph submitted for a square.
  • Seconds: a “Second Visitor” point is awarded to the second person to contribute a Geograph to a square
  • Thirds and Fourths: similarly for a “Third Visitor” and a “Fourth Visitor”.
  • AllPoints: Total of First/Second/Third/Fourth Visitor Points.
  • Personal Points: The first Geograph image submitted by each user in a square gets a Personal point.
  • TPoints: Awarded for a Geograph submitted to a square that doesn’t already have a photo taken within five years.

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