PlanningAlerts is dead, long-live PlanningAlerts

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 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.

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


Videoing council meetings redux: progress on two fronts

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.


Videoing council meetings revisited: the limits of openness in a transparent council

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


Opening up council accounts… and open procurement

Since OpenlyLocal started pulling in council spending data, it’s niggled at me that it’s only half the story. Yes, as more and more data is published you’re beginning to get a much clearer idea of who’s paid what. And if councils publish it at a sufficient level of detail and consistently categorised, we’ll have a pretty good idea of what it’s spent on too.

However, useful though that is, that’s like taking a peak at a company’s bank statement and thinking it tells the whole story. Many of the payments relate to goods or services delivered some time in the past, some for things that have not yet been delivered, and there are all sorts of things (depreciation, movements between accounts, accruals for invoices not yet received) that won’t appear on there.

That’s what the council’s accounts are for — you know, those impenetrable things locked up in PDFs in some dusty corner of the council’s website, all sufficiently different from each other to make comparison difficult:

For some time, the holy grail for projects like OpenlyLocal and Where Does My Money Go has been to get the accounts in a standardized form to make comparison easy not just for accountants but for regular people too.

The thing is, such a thing does exist, and it’s sent by councils to central Government (the Department for Communities and Local Government to be precise) for them to use in their own figures. It’s a fairly hellishly complex spreadsheet called the Revenue Outturn form that must be filled in by the council (to get an idea have a look at the template here).

They’re not published anywhere by the DCLG, but they contain no state secrets or sensitive information; it’s just that the procedure being followed is the same one as they’ve always followed, and so they are not published, even after the statistics have been calculated from the data (the Statistics Act apparently prohibit publication until the stats have been published).

So I had an idea: wouldn’t it be great if we could pull the data that’s sitting in all these spreadsheets into a database and so allow comparison between councils’ accounts, thus freeing it from those forgotten corners of government computers.

This would seem to be a project that would be just about simple enough to be doable (though it’s trickier than it seems) and could allow ordinary people to understand their council’s spending in all sorts of ways (particularly if we add some of those sexy Where Does My Money Go visualisations). It could also be useful in ways that we can barely imagine  – some of the participatory budget experiments going in on in Redbridge and other councils would be even more useful if the context of similar councils spending was added to the mix.

So how would this be funded. Well, the usual route would be for DCLG or perhaps the one of the Local Government Association bodies such as IDeA to scope out a proposal, involving many hours of meetings, reams of paper, and running up thousands of pounds in costs, even before it’s started.

They’d then put the process out to tender, involving many more thousands in admin, and designed to attract those companies who specialise in tendering for public sector work. Each of those would want to ensure they make a profit, and so would work out how they’re going to do it before quoting, running up their own costs, and inflating the final price.

So here’s part two of my plan, instead going down that route, I’d come up with a proposal that would:

  • be a fraction of that cost
  • be specified on a single sheet of paper
  • paid for only if I delivered

Obviously there’s a clear potential conflict of interest here – I sit on the government’s Local Public Data Panel and am pushing strongly for open data, and also stand to benefit (depending on how good I am at getting the information out of those hundreds of spreadsheets, each with multiple worksheets, and matching the classification systems). The solution to that – I think – is to do the whole thing transparently, hence this blog post.

In a sense, what I’m proposing is that I scope out the project, solving those difficult problems of how to do it, with the bonus of instead of delivering a report, I deliver the project.

Is it a good thing to have all this data imported into a database, and shown not just on a website in a way non-accountants can understand, but also available to be combined with other data in mashups and visualisations? Definitely.

Is it a good deal for the taxpayer, and is this open procurement a useful way of doing things? Well you can read the proposal for yourself here, and I’d be really interested in comments both on the proposal and the novel procurement model.


A simple demand: let us record council meetings

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.

The video originated from the council’s own webcasts, and the complaint by Councillor Kemble was that in posting these videos on YouTube, another councillor, Jason Kitcat

(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 postsBrighton 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.


Introducing OpenCharities: Opening up the Charities Register

A couple of weeks ago I needed a list of all the charities in the UK and their registration numbers so that I could try to match them up to the local council spending data OpenlyLocal is aggregating and trying to make sense of. A fairly simple request, you’d think, especially in this new world of transparency and open data, and for a dataset that’s uncontentious.

Well, you’d be wrong. There’s nothing at data.gov.uk, nothing at CKAN and nothing on the Charity Commission website, and in fact you can’t even see the whole register on the website, just the first 500 results of any search/category. Here’s what the Charities Commission says on their website (NB: extract below is truncated):

The Commission can provide an electronic copy in discharge of its duty to provide a legible copy of publicly available information if the person requesting the copy is happy to receive it in that form. There is no obligation on the Commission to provide a copy in this form…

The Commission will not provide an electronic copy of any material subject to Crown copyright or to Crown database right unless it is satisfied… that the Requestor intends to re-use the information in an appropriate manner.

Hmmm. Time for Twitter to come to the rescue to check that some other independently minded person hasn’t already solved the problem. Nothing, but I did get pointed to this request for the data to be unlocked, with the very recent response by the Charity Commission, essentially saying, “Nope, we ain’t going to release it”:

For resource reasons we are not able to display the entire Register of Charities. Searches are therefore limited to 500 results… We cannot allow full access to all the data, held on the register, as there are limitations on the use of data extracted from the Register… However, we are happy to consider granting access to our records on receipt of a written request to the Departmental Record Officer

OK, so it seems as though they have no intention of making this data available anytime soon (I actually don’t buy that there are Intellectual Property or Data Privacy issues with making basic information about charities available, and if there really are this needs to be changed, pronto), so time for some screen-scraping. Turns out it’s a pretty difficult website to scrape, because it requires both cookies and javascript to work properly.

Try turning off both in your browser, and see how far you get, and then you’ll also get an idea of how difficult it is to use if you have accessibility issues – and check out their poor excuse for accessibility statement, i.e. tough luck.

Still, there’s usually a way, even if it does mean some pretty tortuous routes, and like the similarly inaccessible Birmingham City Council website, this is just the sort of challenge that stubborn so-and-so’s like me won’t give up on.

And the way to get the info seems to be through the geographical search (other routes relied upon Javascript), and although it was still problematic, it was doable. So, now we have an open data register of charities, incorporated into OpenlyLocal, and tied in to the spending data being published by councils.

Charity supplier to Local authority

And because this sort of thing is so easy, once you’ve got it in a database (Charity Commission take note), there are a couple of bonuses.

First, it was relatively easy to knock up a quick and very simple Sinatra application, OpenCharities:

Open Charities :: Opening up the UK Charities Register

If there’s any interest, I’ll add more features to it, but for now, it’s just a the simplest of things, a web application with a unique URL for every charity based on its charity number, and with the  basic information for each charity is available as data (XML, JSON and RDF). It’s also searchable, and sortable by most recent income and spending, and for linked data people there are dereferenceable Resource URIs.

This is very much an alpha application: the design is very basic and it’s possible that there are a few charities missing – for two reasons. One: the Charity Commission kept timing out (think I managed to pick up all of those, and they should get picked up when I periodically run the scraper); and two: there appears to be a bug in the Charity Commission website, so that when there’s between 10 and 13 entries, only 10 are shown, but there is no way of seeing the additional ones. As a benchmark, there are currently 150,422 charities in the OpenCharities database.

It’s also worth mentioning that due to inconsistencies with the page structure, the income/spending data for some of the biggest charities is not yet in the system. I’ve worked out a fix, and the entries will be gradually updated, but only as they are re-scraped.

The second bonus is that the entire database is available to download and reuse (under an open, share-alike attribution licence). It’s a compressed CSV file, weighing in at just under 20MB for the compressed version, and should probably only attempted by those familiar with manipulating large datasets (don’t try opening it up in your spreadsheet, for example). I’m also in the process of importing it into Google Fusion Tables (it’s still churning away in the background) and will post a link when it’s done.

Now, back to that spending data.


Local Spending in OpenlyLocal: what features would you like to see?

As I mentioned in a previous post, OpenlyLocal has now started importing council local spending data to make it comparable across councils and linkable to suppliers. We now added some more councils, and some more features, with some interesting results.

As well as the original set of Greater London Authority, Windsor & Maidenhead and Richmond upon Thames, we’ve added data from Uttlesford, King’s Lynn & West Norfolk and Surrey County Council (incidentally, given the size of Uttlesford and of King’s Lynn & West Norfolk, if they publish this data, any council should be able to).

We’ve also added a basic Spending Dashboard, to give an overview of the data we’ve imported so far:

Of course the data provided is of variable quality and in various formats. Some, like King’s Lynn & Norfolk are in simple, clean CSV files. Uttlesford have done it as a spreadsheet with each payment broken down to the relevant service, which is a bit messy to import but adds greater granularity than pretty much any other council.

Others, like Surrey, have taken the data that should be in a CSV file and for no apparent reason have put it in a PDF, which can be converted, but which is a bit of a pain to do, and means maunal intervention to what should be a largely automatic process (challenge for journos/dirt-hunters: is there anything in the data that they’d want to hide, or is it just pig-headedness).

But now we’ve got all that information in there we can start to analyse it, play with it, and ask questions about it, and we’ve started off by showing a basic dashboard for each council.

For each council, it’s got total spend, spend per month, number of suppliers & transactions, biggest suppliers and biggest transactions. It’s also got the spend per month (where a figure is given for a quarter, or two-month period, we’ve averaged it out over the relevant months). Here, for example, is the one for the Greater London Authority:

Lots of interesting questions here, from getting to understand all those leasing costs paid via the Amas Ltd Common Receipts Account, to what the £4m paid to Jack Morton Worldwide (which describes itself as a ‘global brand experience agency’) was for. Of course you can click on the supplier name for details of the transactions and any info that we’ve got on them (in this case it’s been matched to a company – but you can now submit info about a company if we haven’t matched it up).

You can then click on the transaction to find out more info on it, if that info was published, but which is perhaps the start of an FoI request either way:

It’s also worth looking at the Spend By Month, as a raw sanity-check. Here’s the dashboard for Windsor & Maidenhead:

See that big gap for July & August 09. My first thought was that there was an error with importing the data, which is perfectly possible, especially when the formatting changes frequently as it does in W&M’s data files, but looking at the actual file, there appear to be no entries for July & August 09 (I’ve notified them and hopefully we’ve get corrected data published soon). This, for me, is one of the advantages of visualizations: being able to easily spot anomalies in the data, that looking at tables or databases wouldn’t show.

So what further analyses would you like out of the box: average transaction size, number of transactions over £1m, percentage of transactions for a round number (i.e. with a zero at the end),  more visualizations? We’d love your suggestions – please leave them in the comments or tweet me.


About your local area: ward-level statistics come to OpenlyLocal

Those who follow me on twitter will know that for the past couple of months I’ve been on-and-off looking at the Official for National Statistics Neighbourhood Statistics, and whether it would be possible and useful to show some of that information on OpenlyLocal.

Usually, when I’ve mentioned it on twitter it has usually been in the context of moaning about the less-than-friendly SOAP interface to the data (even by SOAP standards it’s unwieldy). There’s also the not insignificant issue of getting to grips with the huge amount of data, and how it’s stored on the ONS’s servers (at one stage I looked at downloading the raw data, but we’re talking about tens of thousands of files).

Still, like a person with a loose tooth, I’ve worried the problem on and off in quiet times with occasionally painful results (although the people at the ONS have been very helpful), and have now got to a level where (I think) it’s pretty useful.

Specifically, you can now see general demographic info for pretty much all the councils in England & Wales (unfortunately the ONS database doesn’t include Scotland or Northern Ireland, so if there’s anyone who can help me with those areas, I’d be pleased to hear from them).

Area Statistics for Preston Council on OpenlyLocal

More significantly, however, we’ve added a whole load of ward-level statistics:

Example of ward-level ONS statistics

Inevitably, much of the data comes from the 2001 Census (the next is due in 2011), and so it’s not bang up to date. However, it’s still useful and informative, particularly as you can compare the figures with the other wards in the council, or compare councils of similar type. Want to know which ward has the greatest proportion of people over the age of 90 years old. No prob, just click on the description (‘People aged 90 and over in this case) and you have it:

Doing the same on councils will bring up  a comparison with similar councils (e.g. District councils are compared with other district councils, London Authorities with other London Authorities):

As you can see from the list of ONS datasets, there’s huge amounts of data to be shown, and we’ve only imported a small section, in part while we’re working out the best way of making it manageable. As you can see from the religion graph, where it makes more sense for it to be graphed we’ve done it that way, and you can expect to see more of that in the futrue.

It’s also worth mentioning that there are some gaps in the ONS’s database — principally where ward boundaries have changed, or where new local authorities have been formed, and if there’s only a small amount of info for a ward or council, that’s why.

In the meantime, have a play, and if there’s a dataset you want us to expose sooner rather than later, let me know in the comments or via twitter (or email, of course).

C

p.s. In case you’re wondering the graphs and data are fully accessible so should be fine for screenreaders. The comparison tables are just plain ordinary HTML tables with a bit of CSS styling to make them look like graphs, and the pie charts have the underlying data accompanying them as tables on the page (and can be seen by anyone else just by clicking on the chart).


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