What happens next for local open data?

It’s always encouraging to see something come to fruition, the final piece of the puzzle settle in. As regular readers will no doubt be aware, we’ve been running the local government incentive scheme for some time now and data has been published steadily from across the country. The benefits of open data are numerous, but recently we were lucky enough to see an early re-use of data opened up by the incentive scheme, that final piece of the puzzle.

At the beginning of November 2014 in Bath, coders descended upon The Guild co-working hub for BathHacked 2.1, a hackathon that utilises the World Heritage city’s open data. Over the course of 36 hours, teams and individuals put together a variety of hacks addressing a diverse range of applications. One of those projects, Bath Planning, used Bath & North East Somerset’s planning applications data – conforming to the incentive scheme’s dataset schema – and we spoke to its creator, Duncan Barclay, to find out more.

What gave you the idea to create BathPlanning at the hackathon? Was it to fill a need, because the data was available, or some other reason?

Bath is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has a significant number of listed buildings, all of which significantly add to the character, appeal, and industry (through tourism) of the city. Any planning application in areas of the city results in a lot of discussion about the impact it'll have.

Personally, over the past few years the street I live on has had planning applications either pending or approved for multiple student housing developments as well as about three new hotels – one in particular was first applied for in 2010, approved in 2012 and they're planning to start work next year. Keeping track of what's going on with them is quite a challenge.

I've noticed over time though, that the notice of the application gets posted, there's a discussion, and then it drops out of the public eye. A few months (or years in some cases) later the applications eventually gets approved. It was that time period between the discussion and the eventual results that I wanted to do something about since a lot happens then. Creating a Twitter account seemed to be a fairly straightforward solution to the problem.

Thinking specifically about creating the hack, how long did it take to hook up the data feed to the Twitter accounts? Was it a fairly simple process?

The hack started at about 11 a.m. on the Saturday. The account was fully launched at about 3.30 a.m. Sunday morning, then I got some sleep and hooked it up to a tower defence game I made a few years ago just for fun.

The council had made the data available in Socrata, so it was a simple case of calling the relevant part of their API to get a list of all the planning applications, and pulling them into my own data store. Any time certain values changed, such as the application being approved, a tweet is added to the queue.

I then had to scrape a bit more data off the council website – they weren't able to provide a list of the documents on each planning application, and I needed that to tell when the applications were updated. Luckily, the site that shows those is relatively simple so was easy to scrape and extract the relevant bits I wanted.

Once that was all done, I just added a script to read something from the tweet queue and send it to Twitter using a third-party library, and it was pretty much done.

Do you have any plans or ideas to expand the project?

I've already made a few tweaks to it, and will likely do more as I learn what is actually useful to people. I certainly plan to keep it running.

With BathFood I found there was a lot of data in the API that wasn't otherwise available on ratings.food.gov.uk, so created a website to show that extra data. There is the potential to do that here too as the council's website for planning data isn't the best website in the world.

In your eyes, what's the benefit of local government opening up its data to the public?

There's a lot of uses of local government data that the council and general public can benefit from, but they don't have the resources or flexibility to come up with prototypes to test out ideas, and see if they do result in a net benefit. By opening the data, they've let everyone else in the community take the data and make things with it.

Some ideas may be so useful for the council that they actually want to run with them and develop them into fully functional applications, and having the prototype helps them justify the cost of doing so, giving them a basis to work from.

Other ideas may be beneficial to the community, but not within the council's remit or generally not within their budget – having members of the public running those means the services actually exist, which they otherwise wouldn't.

And finally, some ideas just don't work out. Prototypes or applications created by the government that fail mean that money has been taken away from something else, and they'd have to explain why it failed to the taxpayers. A member of the community doing the same thing would likely have had no cost to set it up, and could drop it without any regret or problems. It's much easier for a member of the public to fail than it is for the government.

Thanks, Duncan!

If you’d like to make use of open data from the incentive scheme, please browse the Open Data pages or get in touch with the support team.

posted by esd support on 8th December 2014

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