Ordnance Survey recently released the boundary data for council wards so that anyone can use it. On Saturday we built a demonstration of what can be achieved by combining it with other public data.
Although there were a number of presentations from the likes of OpenStreetMap, Mappa Mercia and OpenlyLocal, I spent the bulk of the day helping to build a demonstration of what can be achieved by combining sets of data that are available from Ordnance Survey and National Statistics.
The brief, which had been suggested by Gavin Wray, was to choose a ward and layer information over it. Dan Slee was keen to map St Matthew’s in Walsall, and the group agreed that we should try and compare it against an adjacent ward if possible. While the others searched for datasets, I threw together a web page; Stuart Harrison and Chris Taggart worked on the hard task of writing code.
We ended up with this: http://www.pezholio.co.uk/mapitude/.
Now this might look like we’ve simply drawn a boundary on a couple of Google maps and embedded them in a web page; and in a way we have: the difference is that the plotting of points and drawing of lines is done automatically, and the information about the wards is pulled in automatically.
In other words, Stuart wrote some code that automates the tasks of:
- finding the boundary coordinates from Ordnance Survey OpenData;
- plotting the boundary on a Google map;
- interrogating National Statistics for our choice of data.
Then the map is simply embedded in a web page. Which, in a fully working application, would also be done automatically (or rather, on the whim of whoever visits the web page).
There are loads of other things I’d like to see, such as users choosing boundaries based on their own understanding of geography (administrative boundaries for religious groups or sports organisations, for example) as well as the official civic ones, and comparisons over time.
But remember this was just a demonstration: surprising as it may sound, this hasn’t really been done before. Prior to 1 April 2010, UK ward boundary data were simply not available for public use; groups of fools like us could not have spent our free time building this tool for the public good.
We’re not the only people exploring how we can make good use of public data, plenty of others are too. The point is that this stuff is game-changing, and it’s being done by volunteers for the sake of it (and a free lunch, if one’s available). People are creating their own ways of making sense of the world around them – of understanding and engaging with civic society – and offering it to others. As a result it is even harder these days to pin down where people are getting their information from, how critical they are in analysing it and what level of engagement they have.
The opening up of public data is not a magic bullet of course, but it is an exciting development. With public data now freely available I suspect civic engagement will become much messier and harder to define than it was before: and arguably a lot more democratic.