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.

Birmingham Post column – sporting data

Sometimes the column I write for the Birmingham Post materialises online – other times it doesn’t. When it doesn’t (not sure why it doesn’t) I’ll reproduce here (although newspaper columns are such a different tone to posts on blogs).

This one was a version of the presentation I gave at wxwm2 the other week:

‘Mileage data to Inspire’
Published Monday 6th July (hey, that was my birthday!).

“Years that end in odd numbers usually make for dull sporting summers as the Olympics and the major footballing tournaments only occupy the even numbered years. However, as well as annual tournaments such as Wimbledon we do have a World Athletics Championship and The Ashes to look forward to this summer.

But given how concerned the government are with obesity levels it’ll take more than the sight of a group of blokes throwing balls at each other to persuade a nation of sport-loving couch potatoes to do something about their own health and wellbeing

All the data tells us we’re fat and we’re getting fatter. In fact not only are we fat but our kids are fat and even our pets are fat. Given the state of the economy the only thing that isn’t fat is our wallets. So what’s the approach taken to deal with this? It’s simple – an advertising campaign to remind us how fat we are that goes out of its way to blame computer games and television as the main culprits.

I’m not denying that the Change for Life campaign hasn’t persuaded some people to get off their backside but there’s so much already happening that we could celebrate rather than just play a familiar blame game. Take running for example. On any random weekend there are about 50 organised amateur races happening around the UK with about 50,000 – 100,000 runners taking part. In total that’s up to a million kilometres covered. And that doesn’t even include all the people just running by themselves for training or those running around Sunday league football pitches.

Many runners use GPS watches or other devices to track routes and record mileage. Now imagine all that mileage data gathered on a single map – a map that instead of sending a dour message about our laziness would celebrate ordinary citizens’ everyday sporting activity. What a powerful message that would be that might inspire others to join in.

We’ve got an Olympics coming up in 2012 and so far the only mass participation angle seems to be focused around the Cultural Olympiad. Nothing wrong with that but amateur sport is something that gets overlooked too often. It’s a shame as it’s got the mass participation thing down to a tee in a way the arts can only dream about.

So why not badge up Sunday morning football games as ‘inspired by 2012’. Have every jogger blog, tweet or map their runs as part of a national celebration of sporting engagement leading up to 2012. A digital campaign that visualises mass participation could inspire us all to get off our backsides.”