Data is the New Grit

I’ve taken over the reins at Bournville News for the duration and one of the things I did recently was to produce a map of gritting routes for the area (idea nicked from Northwood Local):

View Bournville and surrounds – gritting routes in a larger map

Now I’m not all that sure that in the course of things seeing a gritting map is particularly useful for Bournville residents. However, I thought the potential grit shortage might mean that some roads would stop getting gritted should the cold spell continue and knowing which roads were meant to be gritted would be useful knowledge.

‘Will my road get gritted?’ is an easy question to answer since the City Council has a alphabetical list of all the roads that are gritted in order of priority. Should supplies run low, I thought, then some roads around Bournville wouldn’t get gritted, residents would get annoyed and the story might grow.

But anyway, doesn’t exist to tell you about annoyed Bournville residents. Instead I wanted to go through the whole pointless, tedious process of creating the map and why this hyperlocal blogging thing is doomed to failure unless we get a rich supply of local data to feed off.

Creating the map – the tedious way:

  1. So, as I said above, the data exists in some rather clumsy, unsortable data on the Birmingham City Council website. I cut and paste this data into a google spreadsheet.
  2. I ordered the spreadsheet to just show the Bournville area.
  3. I then used this information to create a new map in google maps tracing the roads that were to gritted using the ‘Draw along Roads’ button. It was easy then to label up each road as to its gritting priority (level 1, 2 or 3)
  4. Hang on though, what the list called Bournville and what is generally thought of as Bournville aere two different things. A search under Weoley Castle, Northfield and Selly Oak eventually teased out the remaining Bournville roads
  5. Simple now, just get the embed code and place in new blog post.
  6. What? Google Maps has split the map into pages if there’s too much data. Some roads are on page two. Aaaargh. Hang on, google always has the answer
  7. So, get the kml data from the map I produced and import it into a new map to get over the above issue. Now get the new embed code and erm, embed
  8. Look up from laptop and realise that the entire football match you had intended to watch has now finished

Creating the Map – the easy way
The data for the gritting lorry routes already exists. The City Council has it. They have data in usable formats (kml) for loads of stuff like this. If I had that I could, with a click and a few tweaks, create a gritting map for the whole city. It would probably show the routes the trucks went on as well. I (and other local bloggers) could then embed a map for the bit we need. And get this, I (or someone else with an equally mediocre technical knowledge) would create the grit map, not the City. Free the data and we’ll do it for you.

How London Borough of Sutton do it
Not gritting routes maybe but still useful. They’ve got a google map with grit bins on it. If your bin is empty then let them know. If it’s been nicked then let them know. The map is the result of some useful trickery by Adrian Short who is pushing the data through a yahoo pipe. I’m presuming the data for where the grit bins were wasn’t sourced using OS maps. Rather, their locations were plotted by blokes in vans and then input into the council’s GIS (geographical information) system. Adrian took a csv file to feed the pipe. Take a look at Adrian’s version of the map – it incorporates streetview, very smart. And it’s all open. You can clone the pipe, use his data file, create your own map with your own funky grit bin icons.

What all this means for hyperlocal blogging
I wasted too much time creating the Bournville gritting map, I got some nice praise for it but on the whole it was wasted time. There’s a bit of a discourse around spending too much time on things like this that annoys me a bit. I don’t want to be putting in loads of effort for the greater civic good, I don’t want to be making sacrifices of my personal time – I’d much rather watch the football. But give me the data to make it easier and I’ll happily do it again because it would simple, easy, quick. Hyperlocal is going nowhere without data. It’s just a local freesheet without it. Give us data and we’ll be the frontline to citizen queries that could save a local authority an expensive phone call. If you idly type into google ‘Which roads in Bournville get gritted?‘ see what you now get.

Of course, we’ll also enable citizens to cause a fuss when their road is meant to be gritted and isn’t. But that helps create dynamic democratic relationships between citizens and local government – itself a government target I believe. But until we get the data we need we’re doomed.

12 thoughts on “Data is the New Grit

  1. Hyperlocal blogging will not be doomed as long as there are people willing to put the time and effort it!

    – In your own words you’d rather be watching to football – but there are other people who would prefer to be sat in front of their computers, making the data that is available presentable and accessible to the greater public and there is also different approaches to hyperlocal blogging…

    …One of the reasons our site was born because of how difficult it was to navigate the councils website, Finding basic information specific to our area with in the larger city was near impossible unless you knew EXACTLY what to search for so a lot of time went into finding the information for our resources page, the news feed side of the site is growing steadily in bloggers term were still a very new site (less than 6 months) so were still learning but we know we can put as much or as little effort in as we want.

    We didn’t sit creating grit maps in the great UKSNOW event, sourcing data from the council, instead we used twitter and our facebook page to talk about school closures and keep residents up to date and let them help by keeping us up to date too because that was relevant to our area.

    Local sites who try and replace the council and local news sites will struggle but our aim isn’t to do either of those things we just want to become a relevant source of information, support local business and provide a platform for discussion for our local community, and I’m a believer that there is a place for sites such as ours.

    In this instance in your community concentrating on gritting data might have been relevant but in ours, our priority was schools, and in other it might have been about how to go about helping eldery neighbours so while I understand your call for councils to free up data but a sweeping generalisation about hyperlocals being doomed is unjust because surely it depends on each individual blogs aims?

  2. Hi Steph,
    Great response but there’s that discourse again – the discourse that unless your engagement is time consuming you’re not really making adequate effort to the hyperlocal cause. My point about watching the football was a bit of rhetoric rather than evidence of a lack of commitment on my behalf since I actually did spend a long time on the map. But my point is that it needn’t have taken this long. That having the data to hand (that already exists) would have enabled me to do this in minutes, thereby freeing me up to do other snow-related stuff on Bournville News.

    Of course local blogs have different priorities (and your blog rocks by the way), all I’m saying is that useful local data can not only help us provide relevant information to citizens but also support us to innovate around presenting that information.

  3. I agree about freeing up data, it is hard and it shouldn’t be that difficult – but that’s where a lot of the hyperlocal site spawned from, an understanding that sourcing the information was hard and and a way of making it accessible to the local user.

    I’m not trying to negate your position, but if the data was freely available then there would have been less nedd for the hyperlocal blog as it were.

    Thank you for the comments about WV11 on here and on twitter by the way, were trying our best and learning as we go.

  4. as it happens, many councils would indeed love to be able to just export the gritting routes (& other data) .kml file from their own databases in order to let other people play round with it; there are indeed many projects in hand to do just that.

    but unfortunately the majority of the data which exists is derived from ordnance survey mapping data, which means the only (legal) way councils can make that data available is for somebody to carry out more or less the same process you describe as carrying out above.

    “ah, but there’s a plan to free os data from april”, i hear readers type. sadly, the only data which is in scope to be freed as part of the current consultation is the actual os map itself – any data derived *from* that map is still bound by the terms of the os licence.

    so, if one wants to be cross about the inability to do this, it’s central government which needs to be shouted at.

  5. Superb Brian – very well done. I guess I started on google maps as it’s what I know. The collective effort in getting your map off the ground is excellent. Is there now a single data file with the routes on it? Would that be a kml file?

  6. You’re right Dave, hyperlocal sites need this data if they are to do a good job. There is a big movement in opening up data but it seems like most of the actual work is being done by individuals (e.g. OpenlyLocal) which will come across the same problems you talk about. Government certainly isn’t doing enough about this, in my view (especially local gov).

    The WordPress plugins I’ve developed are the start of my own effort to make data that is out there more accessible to hyperlocals. At the moment I’m okay to spend my free time doing that though I’m aware that paid work will always come free so it won’t last forever. I said at news:rewired last week that hyperlocal isn’t sustainable at the moment – most of it is based too much on individual volunteer contributions. Monetisation is key – we need to find away to fund the time and effort required but also the means to present a business case for doing so.

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