Following on from our previous posts on the right to attend, report and record local council meetings, the Department for Communities and Local Government has announced that it will be changing the law to further open up council meetings.
In particular, the new regulations, which come into effect September 10, will reduce the permitted reasons for holding meetings behind closed doors and has widened the definition of media to cover “organisations that… provide news to the public by means of the internet”, thus including hyperlocal blogs.
Will Perrin at TalkAboutLocal has a good summary of some of the other issues in the announcement, but this is important news for hyperlocal bloggers, particularly those that have faced obstruction and restrictions from their local councils.
This post is by Andrew Speakman, who’s coordinating OpenlyLocal‘s planning application work.
We can now report good progress on our plan to develop community scrapers to underpin the new incarnation of PlanningAlerts.com. The plan applies to those councils that use non-standard planning systems and our latest estimate is that there are around 100 of these sites.
There are now 13 successful working scrapers with more on the way and some of the £75 bounties have already been paid out. The data from these scrapers is being regularly uploaded into OpenlyLocal using the Scraperwiki API, and you can see the results here with Crawley Council:
The list of the authorities being scraped by this method is as follows:
- East Sussex
- Isle of Wight
- Nuneaton and Bedworth
- Telford and Wrekin
This is still very much a work in progress, and those in the above list that we’ve linked to are all running well and helping collect up-to-date planning applications with locations, and as soon as we turn on the alerts system (currently being tested), will start sending out email alerts.
There are also some councils that although we’re importing the data for we won’t yet be able to send alerts for – an example is Wokingham from the above list – because they do not include postcodes in the planning application details and our location coding is based on postcodes to ensure our data is fully open. If anyone from authorities such as Wokingham wants to rectify this situation, we’re more than happy to work with them.
If you want to get involved in helping scrape the UK’s planning data and building an open database of planning applications for the whole of the UK, contact me at email@example.com. Further details about data fields and the available planning authorities are defined in this shared Google spreadsheet.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org).
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.
- 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).
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
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).
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.
One of the first and best examples of how data could make a difference to ordinary people’s lives was the inspirational PlanningAlerts.com, 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 PlanningAlerts.com 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.
Tonight, hyperlocal bloggers (and in fact any ordinary members of the public) got two great boosts in their access to council meetings, and their ability to report on them.
Windsor & Maidenhead this evening passed a motion to allow members of the public to video the council meetings. This follows on from my abortive attempt late last year to video one of W&M’s council meeting – see the full story here, video embedded below – following on from the simple suggestion I’d made a couple of months ago to let citizens video council meetings. I should stress that that attempt had been pre-arranged with a cabinet member, in part to see how it would be received – not well as it turned out. But having pushed those boundaries, and with I dare say a bit of lobbying from the transparency minded members, Windsor & Maidenhead have made the decision to fully open up their council meetings.
Separately, though perhaps not entirely coincidentally, the Department for Communities & Local Government tonight issued a press release which called on councils across the country to fully open up their meetings to the public in general and hyperlocal bloggers in particular.
Councils should open up their public meetings to local news ‘bloggers’ and routinely allow online filming of public discussions as part of increasing their transparency, Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles said today.
To ensure all parts of the modern-day media are able to scrutinise Local Government, Mr Pickles believes councils should also open up public meetings to the ‘citizen journalist’ as well as the mainstream media, especially as important budget decisions are being made.
Local Government Minister Bob Neill has written to all councils urging greater openness and calling on them to adopt a modern day approach so that credible community or ‘hyper-local’ bloggers and online broadcasters get the same routine access to council meetings as the traditional accredited media have.
The letter sent today reminds councils that local authority meetings are already open to the general public, which raises concerns about why in some cases bloggers and press have been barred.
Importantly, the letter also tells councils that giving greater access will not contradict data protection law requirements, which was the reason I was given for W&M prohibiting me filming.
So, hyperlocal bloggers, tweet, photograph and video away. Do it quietly, do it well, and raise merry hell in your blogs and local press if you’re prohibited, and maybe we can start another scoreboard to measure the progress. To those councils who videocast, make sure that the videos are downloadable under the Open Government Licence, and we’ll avoid the ridiculousness of councillors being disciplined for increasing access to the democratic process.
And finally if we can collectively think of a way of tagging the videos on Youtube or Vimeo with the council and meeting details, we could even automatically show them on the relevant meeting page on OpenlyLocal.
A couple of months ago, I blogged about the ridiculous situation of a local councillor being hauled up in front of the council’s standards committee for posting a council webcast onto YouTube, and worse, being found against (note: this has since been overturned by the First Tier Tribunal for Local Government Standards, but not without considerable cost for the people of Brighton).
At the time I said we should make the following demand:
Give the public the right to record any council meeting using any device using Flip cams, tape recorders, frankly any darned thing they like as long as it doesn’t disrupt the meeting.
Step forward councillor Liam Maxwell from the Royal Borough of Windsor & Maidenhead, who as the cabinet member for transparency has a personal mission to make RBWM the most transparent council in the country. I don’t see why you couldn’t do that our council, he said.
So, last night, I headed over to Maidenhead for the scheduled council meeting to test this out, and either provide a shining example for other councils, or show that even the most ‘transparent’ council can’t shed the pomposity and self-importance that characterises many council meetings, and allow proper open access.
The video below, less than two minutes long, is the result, and as you can see, they chose the latter course:
Interestingly, when asked why videoing was not allowed, they claimed ‘Data Protection’, the catch-all excuse for any public body that doesn’t want to publish, or open up, something. Of course, this is nonsense in the context of a public meeting, and where all those being filmed were public figures who were carrying out a civic responsibility.
There’s also an interesting bit to the end when a councillor answered that they were ‘transparent’ in response to the observation that they were supposed to be open. This is the same old you-can-look-but-don’t touch attitude that has characterised much of government’s interactions with the public (and works so well at excluding people from the process). Perhaps naively, I was a little shocked to hear this from this particular council.
So there you have it. That, I guess, is where the boundaries of transparency lies at Windsor & Maidenhead. Why not test them out at your council, and perhaps we can start a new scoreboard at OpenlyLocal to go with the open data scoreboard, and the 10:10 council scoreboard
A couple of months ago we had the ridiculous situation of a local council hauling up one of their councillors in front of a displinary hearing for posting videos of the council meeting on YouTube.
(i) had failed to treat his fellow councillors with respect, by posting the clips without the prior knowledge or express permission of Councillor Theobald or Councillor Mears; and
(ii) had abused council facilities by infringing the copyright in the webcast images
and in doing so had breached the Members Code of Conduct.
Astonishingly, the standards committee found against Kitcat and ruled he should be suspended for up to six months if he does not write an apology to Cllr Theobald and submit to re-training on the roles and responsibilities of being a councillor, and it is only the fact that he is appealing to the First-Tier Tribunal (which apparently the council has decided to fight using hire outside counsel) that has allowed him to continue.
It’s worth reading the investigator’s report (PDF, of course) in full for a fairly good example of just how petty and ridiculous these issues become, particularly when the investigator writes things such as:
I consider that Cllr Kitcat did use the council’s IT facilities improperly for political purposes. Most of the clips are about communal bins, a politically contentious issue at the time. The clips are about Cllr Kitcat holding the administration politically to account for the way the bins were introduced, and were intended to highlight what the he believed were the administration’s deficiencies in that regard, based on feedback from certain residents.
Most tellingly, clip no. 5 shows the Cabinet Member responsible for communal bins in an unflattering and politically unfavourable light, and it is hard to avoid the conclusion that this highly abridged clip was selected and posted for political gain.
The using IT facilities, refers, by the way, not to using the council’s own computers to upload or edit the videos (it seems agreed by all that he used his own computer for this), but the fact that the webcasts were made and published on the web using the council’s equipment (or at least those of its supplier, Public-i). Presumably it he’d taken an extract from the minutes of a meeting published on the council’s website that would also have been using the council’s IT resources.
However, let’s step back a bit. This, ultimately, is not about councillors not understanding the web, failing to get get new technology and the ways it can open up debate. This is not even about the somewhat restrictive webcasting system which apparently only has the past six month’s meetings and is somewhat unpleasant to use (particularly if you use a Mac, or Linux — see a debate of the issues here).
This is about councillors failing to understand democracy, about the ability to taking the same material and making up your own mind, and critically trying to persuade others of that view.
In fact the investigator’s statement above, taking “a politically contentious issue at the time… holding the administration politically to account for the way the bins were introduced… to highlight what the he believed were the administration’s deficiencies in that regard” is surely a pretty good benchmark for a democracy.
So here’s simple suggestion for those drawing up the local government legislation at the moment, no let’s make that a demand, since that’s what it should be in a democracy (not a subservient request to your ‘betters’):
Give the public the right to record any council meeting using any device using Flip cams, tape recorders, frankly any darned thing they like as long as it doesn’t disrupt the meeting.
Not only would this open up council meetings and their obscure committees to wider scrutiny, it would also be a boost to hyperlocal sites that are beginning to take the place of the local media.
And if councils want to go to the expense of webcasting their meetings, then require them to make the webcasts available to download under an open licence. That way people can share them, convert them into open formats that don’t require proprietary software, subtititle them, and yes, even post them on YouTube.
I can already hear local politicians saying it will reduce the quality of political discourse, that people may use it in ways they don’t like and can’t control.
Does this seem familiar? It should. It’s the same arguments being given against publishing raw data. The public won’t understand. There may be different interpretations. How will people use it?
Well, folks that’s the point of a democracy. And that’s the point of a data democracy. We can use it in any way we damn well please. The public record is not there to make incumbent councillors or senior staff memebers look good. It’s there to allow the to be held to account. And to allow people to make up their own minds. Stop that, and you’re stopping democracy.
Links: For more posts relating to this case, see also Jason Kitcat’s own blog posts, Brighton Argus post, and posts form Mark Pack at Liberal Democrat voice, Jim Killock, Conservative Home, and even a tweet from Local Government minister Grant Shapps.
Why was it important that the UK government open up the geographic infrastructure? Because it makes so many location-based things that were tortuous, almost trivial.
Previously, getting open data about your local councillors, given just a postcode, was a tortuous business, requiring multiple calls to different sites. Now, it is easy. Just go to http://openlylocal.com/areas/postcodes/%5Byourpostcodehere%5D and, bingo, you’re done.
You can also just put your postcode in the search box on any OpenlyLocal page to do the same thing. And, obviously, you can also download the data as XML or JSON, and with an open data licence that allows reuse by anybody, even commercial reuse.
There’s still a little bit of tweaking to be done. I need to match up postcodes county electoral divisions, and I’m planning on adding RDF to the data types returned. Finally, it’d be great to show the ward boundaries on a map, but I think that may take a little more work.
A bit overdue (I’ve been talking about doing this for a couple of months), but at last there’s now a Ning app for OpenlyLocal local data so anyone who has a UK Ning hyperlocal site (well, anyone in the 90+ councils we’ve opened up data for) can now have information about their council right there in their site.
Like the OpenlyLocal Google gadget (see OpenlyLocal info on your website, Part 1: Google Gadgets), it’s fairly straightforward to use. You need to be the owner of the Ning community to add it, and then it’s automatically available to users as just another tab (like Forums, Videos, Photos, etc). Once you’ve done it you (and the other members of the community) can see the council’s key data, upcoming meetings, members and committees. More features and functionality will be added, but it’s already a very useful addition to any hyperlocal site.
This is what it looks like in action:
So how do you add the OpenlyLocal application to your Ning community (NB Ning Apps need to be added by the network creator). It’s a breeze, and should take no more than a couple of minutes (probably a lot less):
- Go to the ‘Manage’ Tab on your network:
- Click on Ning Apps and you’ll be shown the Ning App directory. Quickest thing is just to search for the OpenlyLocal app:
- Choose the OpenlyLocal application:
- You’ll then be redirected to the Tab management screeen, where you can change the name of the Tab for the app . By default it’s “Council info :: OpenlyLocal”, but might be better to be just “Our Council” or “Council watch” if space is tight. *Important*: If you do change the name, you must click the Save Tab Settings button, otherwise just click on the link:
- You should now be shown the OpenlyLocal page (if not, just click on the tab), and you should click on the ‘edit settings’ link (in the top RIGHT of the info area, not the ‘settings’ link just above it and to the left).
- Select your local authority, and then “Save Changes”
- The app will then get the data from OpenlyLocal (but some may be hidden – if so so just reload the page).
- That’s it.
There’s more features coming, but I hope you’ll agree it’s an essential addition to any Ning hyperlocal community. Comments as ever welcome, and the code behind the application will be shortly uploaded to the OpenlyLocal github tools page.
p.s. To remove the app, just go back to the tab management page and click on the ‘x’ beside the tab.