Open data and all that

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How to help build the UK’s open planning database: writing scrapers

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This post is by Andrew Speakman, who’s coordinating OpenlyLocal’s planning application work.

As Chris wrote in his last post announcing OpenlyLocal’s progress in building an open database of planning applications, while we can do the importing from the main planning systems, if we’re really going to cover the whole country, we’re going to need the community’s help. I’m going to be coordinating this effort and so I thought it would be useful to explain how we’re going to do this (you can contact me at

First, we’re going to use the excellent ScraperWiki as the main platform for writing external scrapers. It supports Python, Ruby and PHP, and has worked well for similar schemes. It also means the scraper is openly available and we can see it in action. We will then use the Scraperwiki API to upload the data regularly into OpenlyLocal.

Second, we’re going to break the job into manageable chunks by focus on target groups of councils, and just to sweeten things – as if building a national open database of planning applications wasn’t enough ;-) – we’re going to offer small bounties (£75) for successful scrapers for these councils.

We have some particular requirements designed to make the system maintainable, and do things the right way, but not many are fixed in stone, so feel free to respond with suggestions if you want to do it in a different way.

For example, the scraper should keep itself current (running on a daily basis), but also behave nicely (not putting an excessive load on Scraperwiki or the target website by trying to get too much data in one go). In addition we propose that the scrapers should operate by updating current applications on a daily basis and also make inroads into the backlog by gathering a batch of previous applications.

We have set up three example scrapers that operate in the way we expect: Brent (Ruby), Nuneaton and Bedworth (Python) and East Sussex (Python). These scrapers perform 4 operations, as follows:

  1. Create new database records for any new applications that have appeared on the site since the last run and store the identifiers (uid and url).
  2. Create new database records of a batch of missing older applications and store the identifiers (uid and url). Currently the scrapers are set up to work backwards from the earliest stored application towards a target date in the past
  3. Update the most current applications by collecting and saving the full application details. At the moment the scrapers update the details of all applications from the past 60 days.
  4. Update the full application details of a batch of older applications where the uid and url has been collected (as above) but the application details are missing. At the moment the scrapers work backwards from the earliest “empty” application towards a target date in the past

The data fields to be gathered for each planning application are defined in this shared Google spreadsheet. Not all the fields will be available on every site, but we want all those that are there.

Note the following:

  • The minimal valid set of fields for an application is: ‘uid’, ‘description’, ‘address’, ‘start_date’ and ‘date_scraped’
  • The ‘uid’ is the database primary key field
  • All dates (except date_scraped) should be stored in ISO8601 format
  • The ‘start_date’ field is set to the earliest of the ‘date_received’ or ‘date_validated’ fields, depending on which is available
  • The ‘date_scraped’ field is a date/time (RFC3339) set to the current time when the full application details are updated. It should be indexed.

So how do you get started? Here’s a list of 10 non-standard authorities that you can choose from. Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire, Ashfield, Bath, Calderdale, Carmarthenshire, Consett, Crawley, Elmbridge, Flintshire. Have a look at the sites and then let me know if you want to reserve one and how long you think it will take to write your scraper.

Happy scraping.

Planning Alerts: first fruits

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PlanningAlerts is coming soon

Well, that took a little longer than planned…

[I won't go into the details, but suffice to say our internal deadline got squeezed between the combination of a fast-growing website, the usual issues of large datasets, and that tricky business of finding and managing coders who can program in Ruby, get data, and be really good at scraping tricky websites.]

But I’m pleased to say we’ve now well on our way to not just resurrecting PlanningAlerts in a sustainable, scalable way but a whole lot more too.

Where we’re heading: a open database of UK planning applications

First, let’s talk about the end goal. From the beginning, while we wanted to get PlanningAlerts working again – the simplicity of being able to put in your postcode and email address and get alerts about nearby planning applications is both useful and compelling – we also knew that if the service was going to be sustainable, and serve the needs of the wider community we’d need to do a whole lot more.

Particularly with the significant changes in the planning laws and regulations that are being brought in over the next few years, it’s important that everybody – individuals, community groups, NGOs, other websites, even councils – have good and open access to not just the planning applications in their area, but in the surrounding areas too.

In short, we wanted to create the UK’s first open database of planning applications, free for reuse by all.

That meant not just finding when there was a planning application, and where (though that’s really useful), but also capturing all the other data too, and also keep that information updated as the planning application went through the various stages (the original PlanningAlerts just scraped the information once, when it was found on the website, and even then pretty much just got the address and the description).

Of course, were local authorities to publish the information as open data, for example through an API, this would be easy. As it is, with a couple of exceptions, it means an awful lot of scraping, and some pretty clever scraping too, not to mention upgrading the servers and making OpenlyLocal more scalable.

Where we’ve got to

Still, we’ve pretty much overcome these issues and now have hundreds of scrapers working, pulling the information into OpenlyLocal from well over a hundred councils, and now have well over half a million planning applications in there.

There are still some things to be sorted out – some of the council websites seem to shut down for a few hours overnight, meaning they appear to be broken when we visit them, others change URLs without redirecting to the new ones, and still others are just, well, flaky. But we’ve now got to a stage where we can start opening up the data we have, for people to play around with, find issues with, and start to use.

For a start, each planning application has its own permanent URL, and the information is also available as JSON or XML:

There’s also a page for each council, showing the latest planning applications, and the information here is available via the API too:

There’s also a GeoRSS feed for each council too allowing you to keep up to date with the latest planning applications for your council. It also means you can easily create maps or widgets for the council, showing the latest applications of the council.

Finally, Andrew Speakman, who’d coincidentally been doing some great stuff in this area, has joined the team as Planning editor, to help coordinate efforts and liaise with the community (more on this below).

What’s next

The next main task is to reinstate the original PlanningAlert functionality. That’s our focus now, and we’re about halfway there (and aiming to get the first alerts going out in the next 2-3 weeks).

We’ve also got several more councils and planning application systems to add, and this should bring the number of councils we’ve got on the system to between 150 and 200. This will be an ongoing process, over the next couple of months. There’ll also be some much-overdue design work on OpenlyLocal so that the increased amount of information on there is presented to the user in a more intuitive way – please feel free to contact us if you’re a UX person/designer and want to help out.

We also need to improve the database backend. We’ve been using MySQL exclusively since the start, but MySQL isn’t great at spatial (i.e. geographic) searches, restricting the sort of functionality we can offer. We expect to sort this in a month or so, probably moving to PostGIS, and after that we can start to add more features, finer grained searches, and start to look at making the whole thing sustainable by offering premium services.

We’ll be working too on liaising with councils who want to offer their applications via an API – as the ever pioneering Lichfield council already does – or a nightly data dump. This not only does the right thing in opening up data for all to use, but also means we don’t have to scrape their websites. Lichfield, for example, uses the Idox system, and the web interface for this (which is what you see when you look at a planning application on Lichfield’s website) spreads the application details over 8 different web pages, but the API makes this available on a single URL, reducing the work the server has to do.

Finally, we’re going to be announcing a bounty scheme for the scraper/developer community to write scrapers for those areas that don’t use one of the standard systems. Andrew will be coordinating this, and will be blogging about this sometime in the next week or so (and you can contact him at planning at openlylocal dot com). We’ll also be tweeting progress at @planningalert.

Thanks for your patience.

An open letter to Vince Cable

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Dear Mr Cable

I read with interest yesterday your letter to the Prime Minister about some of the issues facing the UK in the future, and in particular the need for a vision and for a connected approach across government. This struck me as timely and useful, as it hopefully signalled the intention of a change in policy at one of the main roadblocks to innovation in improving government and fostering innovation.

I am referring to the policy of your own department – the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills – to restricting access to core reference datasets, such as the Ordnance Survey mapping data, postcodes, and company data, and thus not just stifling innovation and growth but preventing a consistent and connected approach across government.

Though much about the future is unclear one thing is certain, that we are increasingly living in a data world. In that world innovation – and democracy – depends on the ability to access and reuse data, particularly the core reference data on which other data is based: what area a postcode refers to, where something is located, who runs and owns the companies for which we work or which receive government money.

In fact, opening non-personal government data forms part of the government’s growth agenda, and it has already published a considerable amount. Yet much of this data is almost useless without the core reference to tie it together – data which is under the control of your department.

When I met with your then junior minister Ed Davey a couple of months ago on this subject, I asked him point blank whether the government was going to publish huge amounts of data under a licence which allowed free reuse, but was going to restrict access to the core datasets which tied these together, that were in fact the core infrastructure for our digital world? He said, ‘We’ve got some ideas for innovative charging models.’

Let’s put aside the fact that government departments aren’t the right people to come up with ‘innovative charging models’ – they don’t have the right skills, experience, and unlike entrepreneurs like myself they aren’t risking their personal money, but the nation’s future. Let’s focus instead on a ‘connected approach across government’. This would seem a perfect example of a relatively minor source of revenue (maybe as little as £50 million, according to the report published yesterday by Policy Exchange) preventing such an approach, and with it a route to how the UK will ‘earn our living in the future’.

In my own area, OpenCorporates has in a year grown to be the largest open database of corporate data in the world – without, I should add, any help, encouragement or cooperation from BIS. We have just released a new feature that allows search for directors across multiple jurisdictions, massively increasing the ability of journalists, fraud investigators, investors, civil society, customers and suppliers to understand companies. Needless to say, UK companies aren’t included in this list because this data is restricted to those who pay.

One vision for the future would include making the UK a genuinely open and transparent place to do business, for example making UK Companies House as open as that in New Zealand, where all data is available openly and without charge. It would include making the UK leaders in the field of open data, not just generating a world-leading ecosystem of companies such as we have in motorsport, but pioneering the use of open data by companies of all types and sizes. And it would include the government being able to reuse and publish its own data without the corrosive and restrictive licences placed upon it by the likes of Ordnance Survey, and thus have a truly connected approach.

You have it within your power to help enable that vision – I hope you will act on it.

Chris Taggart

Co-founder & CEO, OpenCorporates, founder
Member  of Local Public Data Panel

Written by countculture

March 7, 2012 at 5:00 pm

Wanted: Ruby programmer who loves to work with open data

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As you may have read from our previous post, OpenlyLocal is taking over to enable this valuable service not just to continue, but also develop into a much richer community resource.

We’ve already started work on this, but we need a Ruby programmer to help us with this (and maybe much more). This is what we’re looking for:

  • Great Ruby skills, and solid experience with Ruby on Rails (OpenlyLocal is a Rails app)
  • Experience with Test Driven Development
  • An all-rounder with some Linux sysadmin skills
  • Have done enough scraping to be able to handle those pesky .asp pages
  • Eagerness to work with open data
We’re open to the work being done on a contract basis, or as a member of staff (though we have a virtual office). Send us an email to info at OpenlyLocal dot com, including links to existing projects/code that you have been responsible for.

Written by countculture

November 11, 2011 at 12:21 pm

The economics of open data & the big society

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Yesterday I received an email from a Cabinet Office civil servant in preparation for a workshop  tomorrow about the Open Data in Growth Review, and in it I was asked to provide:

an estimation of the impact of Open Data generally, or a specific data set, on UK economic growth…  an estimation of the economic impact of open data on your business (perhaps in terms of increase in turnover or number of new jobs created) of Open Data or a specific data set, and where possible the UK economy as a whole

My response:

How many Treasury economists can I borrow to help me answer these questions? Seriously.

Because that’s the point. Like the faux Public Data Corporation consultation that refuses to allow the issue of governance to be addressed, this feels very much like a stitch-up. Who, apart from economists, or those large companies and organisations who employ economists, has the skill, tools, or ability to answer questions like that.

And if I say, as an SME, that we may be employing 10 people in a year’s time, what will that count against Equifax, for example (who are also attending), who may say that their legacy business model (and staff) depends on restricting access to company data. If this view is allowed to prevail, we can kiss goodbye to the ‘more open, more fair and more prosperous‘ society the government says it wants.

So the question itself is clearly loaded, perhaps unintentionally (or perhaps not). Still, the question was asked, so here goes:

I’m going to address this in a somewhat reverse way (a sort of proof-by-contradiction). That is, rather than work out the difference between an open data world and a closed data one by estimating the increase from the current closed data world, I’m going to work out the costs to the UK incurred by having closed data.

Note that extensive use is made of Fermi estimates and backs of envelopes

  • Increased costs to the UK of delays and frustrations. Twice this week I have waited around for more than 10 minutes for buses, time when I could have stayed in the coffee shop I was working in and carried on working on my laptop had I known when the next bus was coming.
    Assuming I’m fairly unremarkable here and the situation happens to say 10 per cent of the UK’s working population through one form of transport or another, that means that there’s a loss of potential productivity of approx 0.04% (2390 minutes/2400 mins x 10%).
    Similar factors apply to a whole number of other areas, closely tied to public sector data, from roadworks (not open data) to health information to education information (years after a test dump was published we still don’t have access to Edubase) – just examine a typical week and think of the number of times you were frustrated by something which linked to public information (strength of mobile signal?). So, assuming that the transport is a fairly significant 10% of the whole, and applying it to the UK $2.25 trillion GDP we get £9000 million. Not included: loss of activity due to stress, anger, knock-on effects (when I am late for a meeting I make attendees who are on time unproductive too), etc
  • Knock-on cost of data to public sector and associated administration. Taking the Ordnance Survey as an example of a Shareholder Executive body, of its £114m in revenue (and roughly equivalent costs), £74m comes from the public sector and utilities.
    Although there would seem to be a zero cost in paying money from one organisation to another, this ignores the public sector staff and administration costs involved in buying, managing and keeping separate this info, which could easily be 30% of these costs, say 22 million. In addition, it has had to run a sales and marketing operation costing probably 14% of its turnover (based on staff numbers), and presumably it costs money collecting, formatting data which is only wanted by the private sector, say 10% of its costs.
    This leads to extra costs of £22m + £16m + £14m = £52 million or 45%. Extrapolating that over the Shareholder Executive turnover of £20 billion, and discounting by 50% (on the basis that it may not be representative) leads to additional costs of £4500 million. Not included: additional costs of margin paid on public sector data bought back from the private (i.e. part of the costs when public sector buys public-sector-based data from the private sector is the margin/costs associated with buying the public sector data).
  • Significant decreases in exchange of information, and duplication of work within the public sector (not directly connected with purchase of public sector data). Let’s say that duplication, lack of communication, lack of data exchange increases the amount of work for the civil service by 0.5%. I have no idea of the total cost of the local & central govt civil service, but there’s apparently 450,000 of them, earning, costing say £60,000 each to employ, on the basis that a typical staff member costs twice their salary. That gives us an increased cost of £1350 million. Not included: cost of legal advice, solving licence chain problems, inability to perform its basic functions properly, etc.
  • Increased fraud, corruption, poor regulation. This is a very difficult one to guess, as by definition much goes undetected. However, I’d say that many of the financial scandals of the past 10 years, from mis-selling to the FSA’s poor supervision of the finance industry had a fertile breeding ground in the closed data world in which we live (and just check out the FSA’s terms & conditions if you don’t believe me). Not to mention phoenix companies, one hand of government closing down companies that another is paying money to, and so on. You could probably justify any figure here, from £500 million to £50 billion. Why don’t we say a round billion. Not included: damage to society, trust, the civic realm
  • Increased friction in the private sector world. Every time we need a list of addresses from a postcode, information about other companies, or any other public sector data that is routinely sold, we not only pay for it in the original cost, but for the markups on that original cost from all the actors in the chain. More than that, if the dataset is of a significant capital cost, it reduces the possible players in the market, and increases costs. This may or may not appear to increase GDP, but it does so in the same way that pollution does, and ultimately makes doing business in the UK more problematic and expensive. Difficult to put a cost on this, so I won’t.
  • I’m also going to throw in a few billion to account for all the companies, applications and work that never get started because people are put off by the lack of information, high barriers to entry, or plain inaccessibility of the data (I’m here taking the lead from the planning reforms, which are partly justified on the basis that many planning applications are not made because of the hassle in doing them or because they would be refused, or otherwise blocked by the current system.)

What I haven’t included is reduced utilisation of resources (e.g empty buses, public sector buildings – the location of which can’t be released due to Ordnance Survey restrictions, etc), the poor incentives to invest in data skills in the public sector and in schools, the difficulty of SMEs understanding and breaking into new markets, and the inability of the Big Society to argue against entrenched interests on anything like and equal footing.

And this last point is crucial if localism is going to mean more rather than less power for the people.

So where does that leave us. A total of something like:

£17,850 million.

That, back of the envelope-wise, is what closed data is costing us, the loss through creating artificial scarcity by restricting public sector data to only those pay. Like narrowing an infinitely wide crossing to a small gate just so you can charge – hey, that’s an idea, why not put a toll booth on every bridge in London, that would raise some money – you can do it, but would that really be a good idea?

And for those who say the figures are bunk, that I’ve picked them out of the air, not understood the economics, or simply made mistakes in the maths – well, you’re probably right. If you want me to do better give me those Treasury economists, and the resources to use them, or accept that you’re only getting the voice of those that do, and not innovative SMEs, still less the Big Society.

Footnote: On a similar topic, but taking a slightly different tack is the ever excellent David Eaves on the economics of Toronto’s transport data. Well worth reading.

Update 15/10/2011: Removed line from 3rd para: ” (it’s also a concern that we’re actually the only company attending that’s consuming and publishing open data)” . In the event it turned out there were a couple other SMEs too working with open data day-to-day, but we were massively outnumbered by parts of government and companies whose existing models were to a large degree based on closed data. Despite this there wasn’t a single good word to be heard in favour of the Public Data Corporation, and many, many concerns that it was going down the wrong route entirely. 

Written by countculture

October 13, 2011 at 5:39 pm

PlanningAlerts is dead, long-live PlanningAlerts

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Planning Alerts screengrab

One of the first and best examples of how data could make a difference to ordinary people’s lives was the inspirational, built by Richard Pope, Mikel Maron, Sam Smith, Duncan Parkes, Tom Hughes and Andy Armstrong.

In doing one simple thing – allowing ordinary people to subscribe to an email alert when there was a planning application near them, regardless of council boundaries – it showed that data mattered, and more than that had the power to improve the interaction between government and the community.

It did so many revolutionary things and fought so many important battles that everyone in the open data world (and not just the UK) owes all those who built it a massive debt of gratitude. Richard Pope and Duncan Parkes in particular put masses of hours writing scrapers, fighting the battle to open postcodes and providing a simple but powerful user experience.

However, over the past year it had become increasingly difficult to keep the site going, with many of the scrapers falling into disrepair (aka scraper rot). Add to that the demands of a day job, and the cost of running a server, and it’s a tribute to both Richard and Duncan that they kept PlanningAlerts going for as long as they did.

So when Richard reached out to OpenlyLocal and asked if we were interested in taking over PlanningAlerts we were both flattered and delighted. Flattered and delighted, but also a little nervous. Could we take this on in a sustainable manner, and do as good a job as they had done?

Well after going through the figures, and looking at how we might architect it, we decided we could – there were parts of the problem that were similar to what we were already doing with OpenlyLocal – but we’d need to make sustainability a core goal right from the get-go. That would mean a business plan, and also a way for the community to help out.

Both of those had been given thought by both us and by Richard, and we’d come to pretty much identical ideas, using a freemium model to generate income, and ScraperWiki to allow the community help with writing scrapers, especially for those councils didn’t use one of the common systems. But we also knew that we’d need to accelerate this process using a bounty model, such as the one that’s been so successful for OpenCorporates.

Now all we needed was the finance to kick-start the whole thing, and we contacted Nesta to see if they were interested in providing seed funding by way of a grant. I’ve been quite critical of Nesta’s processes in the past, but to their credit they didn’t hold this against us, and more than that showed they were capable and eager to working in a fast, lightweight & agile way.

We didn’t quite manage to get the funding or do the transition before Richard’s server rental ran out, but we did save all the existing data, and are now hard at work building PlanningAlerts into OpenlyLocal, and gratifyingly making good progress. The domain is also in the middle of being transferred, and this should be completed in the next day or so.

We expect to start displaying the original scraped planning applications over the next few weeks, and have already started work on scrapers for the main systems used by councils. We’ll post here, and on the OpenlyLocal and PlanningAlert twitter accounts as we progress.

We’re also liaising with PlanningAlerts Australia, who were originally inspired by PlanningAlerts UK, but have since considerably raised the bar. In particular we’ll be aiming to share a common data structure with them, making it easy to build applications based on planning applications from either source.

And, finally, of course, all the data will be available as open data, using the same Open Database Licence as the rest of OpenlyLocal.

The Public Data Corporation vs Good Governance

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As I feared back when it was first announced, the proposed UK Public Data Corporation has got nothing to do with open data, and everything to do with protecting the interests of a few civil servants, turning back the open data clock to the dark ages of derived data and privileged access for the few.

However, the issue I’d like to focus on here, having last week attended a workshop on the PDC consultation is governance. [It's worth mentioning that I was the only one at the workshop without a stake in the existing public sector information structure, telling in itself.] And far from it being a dry, academic, wonkish subject, it is critical to the future of public data in the UK.

The reason this is so contentious is twofold:

  • The consultation on the PDC has been drawn very narrowly, trying to get respondants to choose between a set of options that are all bad for open data, and ultimately democracy. “So, open data, would you like a bullet to the back of the head, or to be slowly drained of blood?”
  • There are clear conflicts of interest between the wider interests of society, and those of the Shareholder Executive – the trading funds such as the Ordnance Survey and Land Registry who are the very roadblock that open data is supposed to clear, but yet who crucially seem to be driving the PDC.
    Now, from their perspective, I can see the appeal of keeping everything cosy and tight, particularly if there’s a chance the organisations being floated off, and with it considerable personal enrichment. But public policy shouldn’t be driven by the personal interests of civil servants, but what is in the interests of society as a whole.

In fact, the governance of the Public Data Corporation, and the rules by which it operates were the one thing that everyone at the workshop I attended agreed upon. In fact more than that, it was agreed that the delivery of its duties should be separate both from the principles by which it operates (which should be for the benefit of society) and the independent body that needs to ensure it sticks to those principles.

But here’s the kicker, the Transition Board for the PDC (which will oversee its membership, structure and governance) is, I understand, meeting on October 25, two days before the consultation ends.

When I asked this meeting, and whether the consultation was a done deal, I was told, “The governance of the PDC is not being consulted on.”

This is both rather shocking, and shameful, and for me means there’s only one viable option if the UK is serious about open data: to send the whole PDC concept back to the drawing board, and this time to come up with a solution that is focused not on civil servants’ narrow personal interests, but on building a ‘more open, more fair and more prosperous‘ society (to quote the Chancellor).

Written by countculture

October 10, 2011 at 11:53 am


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