Planning Alerts: first fruits

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.

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13 Comments on “Planning Alerts: first fruits”

  1. Julian Tait says:

    Is there any value in listing the local authorities who you are able to scrape/acquire the data from. Highlighting those who do make data available, compared to the those who don’t is a good driver. The way that OpenlyLocal rated LA’s openness really worked and there was many a presentation given by compliant LAs in front of non-compliant ones, which am sure had some effect – even if it creates a conversation between them as to ‘how did you do that?’

    • countculture says:

      Yes, definitely. Planning (no pun intended) to have a dashboard giving a list of councils we’ve got the data from, last applications etc

    • countculture says:

      James
      Great. Is it possible to get details of the individual applications as XML too?
      Chris

      • James says:

        Chris…you’ll need to speak to Mike (below) from Astun on that!! Our feed is comprehensive though and covers all (valid) applications for the last 90 days. We have been through a few iterations of SQL to ensure that nothing is missed from the feed and that it does indeed represent a true picture of planning apps.

        James

      • countculture says:

        James
        That’s good to know, and should mean that the GeoRSS feed can be used in this case (although we’d need a way to get from the RSS items to the complete entries). This could be done by using the URL of the entries in the link element for the items. By the way, that URL appeared to be an HTML representation rather than RSS feed, unless I misunderstood. Which is entirely possible ;-)

      • James says:

        Chris, the URL is currently configured to point back to the detailed planning case information in our online planning system.

  2. We (astuntechnology.com) work with over 35 local authorities and have done most of the hard work of getting the data out of the planning (and other) systems.

    We already have clients providing feeds of their planing applications so we’d be interested to know:

    1. If you are taking the Lichfield GeoRSS format as a standard?
    2. How / Where we can publish URL’s to you to pick up data from?
    3. Linked data – are you doing anything on this side?

    Thanks
    Mike

    • countculture says:

      Mike
      That sounds great. I’ll try to answer the questions in detail:

      We’re using the GeoRSS feed for Lichfield for the basic existence of an planning application, and then using their XML api to get the details. However, GeoRSS is not great, because it only shows you the most recent XX entries, and depending on how many planning applications there are a day, and what order the GeoRSS feed is in (date received, date validated, date updated, date visible to the public) new items might not appear on it, or might get missed by someone using it as a primary source for the data. Would be better to be able to get all the applications between a range of dates as XML or JSON
      You could put them on a single page to be scraped, or via an API. Or it might be just easier to email them to planning at openlylocal dot com ;-)
      Not yet, although it would be great if we (the community) could do with standardise the terms, and then formalise that into a vocabulary. We’ve come up with a list of core terms, based on looking at many of the councils we’ve looked at so far and Andrew will be blogging about that soon. I’m guessing you’ve done some standardisation too. Would be great to get your take on it.

  3. You won’t regret moving to PostGIS. For example, using postgres 9.1 and GIST indexes I can get nearby-POIs in under 17ms! ST_AsGML/ST_AsKML/ST_AsGeoJSON/ST_AsSVG functions are great too. And in a very hacky case, you can merge 3141 county polygons into a map of the USA in 3.7 seconds: http://blog.cleverelephant.ca/2009/01/must-faster-unions-in-postgis-14.html

  4. [...] Chris wrote in his last post announcing OpenlyLocal’s progress in building an open database of plann…, while we can do the importing from the main planning systems, if we’re really going to cover [...]

  5. gavinweb says:

    Hi. Data is available from my council – East Staffs Borough Council – but it’s out of date http://openlylocal.com/councils/120-East-Staffordshire-Borough-Council/planning_applications

    Is that something wrong at your end or with the council? If the council, what can I and others with lacklustre councils do to chivvy them on.

    Thanks.


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