Ooooh – a round thing with spokes!

I picked up on the twitter conversation between my friend James Rutter and folk at CycleStreets about an application to Ordnance Survey’s GeoVation program for “a modern interface to UK wide planning application data“- note that OS is offering a share of £101,000 to the winners of this challenge, that’s quite a lot of taxpayer dosh. There was a tooing and froing about whether yet another initiative was needed to aggregate planning information. I have written before about innovation competitions and hackathons, questioning whether they represent a good use of taxpayer funds and whether they stimulate any sustainable innovation, is this another example that supports my sceptical point of view? Innovation or …

Sometimes you just know that someone else knows way, way more than you do about a subject and in this case I reckon that my friend James Rutter is that someone, James is the GI Manager for Surrey Heath Borough Council, an open source and open data evangelist and he just happened to be part of the team that built the Surrey Planning Hub with a bit of help from my friends at Astun.

What James has written here is in his own name and does not represent the views of his employers SHBC:-

There’s a lot of secret and weird stuff happening with respect to online local authority planning applications data at present. My recent experiences include having a comment that I left about UPRN numbers on an Ordnance Survey blog post removed, my Twitter account monitored (the merest whiff of a mention of UPRN numbers resulted in a phone call from the OS) through to calls from the PSMA Secretariat at BIS acknowledging the need to deal with my data exemption request with urgency, to the OS profoundly apologising to me for refusing to answer my emails which were chasing the outcome of said data exemption request.

The impetus for this post was catching sight of the Ordnance Survey Geovation Challenge finalists list . The irony of seeing ‘A modern interface to UK-wide planning application data’ is profound. Surrey authorities have built one already in close liaison with a similar effort from the chaps at the Hampshire Hub. Both these complementary projects received a not inconsiderable volume of taxpayers cash from the Data Strategy Breakthrough fund jointly administered by BIS and the LGA. Through a recent Twitter conversation it transpires that Northern Ireland has also built a very slick planning hub.

The premise of the Surrey planning hub revolves around Surrey districts publishing a daily XML feed of recent planning application data. Different authorities use different planning systems with different data schemas so key to this work was defining a common way to express planning information. To this end, a schema was devised at a workshop hosted by DCLG and attended by Hampshire and Surrey authorities, DCLG, the LGA (transparency and ESD staff) and chaired by the director of the Local e-Gov Standards Body. Usefully this work also coincided with the Local Open Data Incentive Scheme jointly run by the LGA and the Open Data User Group with Cabinet Office funding which recognised the work done on the planning schema and thus began to apply one-off payments to authorities to produce planning data to this standard (to date 21 authorities are publishing their planning data to this standard). With the recent spate of publication requirements on local government such as INSPIRE, FOI, the Transparency Code, all authorities should have tools (or if they haven’t they need to acquire them) to publish data to the web in different formats (including XML).

The Surrey hub takes these daily XML feeds, does some integrity checks, aggregates them and makes them available to the public through a simple API which can be queried in different ways. If developers want to put a map interface on top of the data they can do that too. The point is, that as local government we’re not interested in building expensive apps, but more interested in publishing our data in generic and ubiquitous web formats. The code which runs the Surrey hub is open source and is available for re-use by anyone.

So, the code is re-usable. But, no data publication discussion would be complete today without the usual cries for it to be ‘open data’ to facilitate its re-use. Issue one…the UPRN number. Most at the DCLG schema workshop were labouring under the misapprehension that the URPN would be open data. It’s not! The ‘open data movement’ as far as data that is remotely connected to the Ordnance Survey is caught in high level wranglings between the Shareholder Executive and the Treasury at one end (who are desperate to hold onto the income streams from heavily licensed data) and pressure from various bodies like the Open Data Institute, the Cabinet Office and the Open Data Users Group and some local government activists at the other. We awaited an announcement on the UPRN number during the Autumn Statement which arrived and passed. Now we wait for a new year announcement. My understanding is that government have told Ordnance Survey to say absolutely nothing to anyone until this announcement (hence the radio blackout on the formal submissions to the OS for data exemptions from Hampshire and Surrey!) It’s right that there should be funding discussions for organisations, after all as far as two key players with regard to UPRN numbers go (Ordnance Survey and Geoplace), they have to be paid for somehow.

All I will say is that it is morally wrong for anyone to claim a right or commercial value on the UPRN number. Having been around in the GIS and Gazetteer world pretty much since the inception of the UPRN I can tell you it was designed to join up different and various datasets, not for someone like Ordnance Survey to make commercial gain from it. The reason the UPRN is not open is because Geoplace claims a ‘database right’ on the number because it hands blocks of these numbers to authorities to ensure their uniqueness and no sequence overlaps between authorities. Ordnance Survey is contracted by Geoplace to commercialise the national gazetteer with it’s incorporation into it’s Addressbase products.

So to cut what could be a long ramble short, lets assess what we already have as far as a national planning hub goes…

  • We have a data schema (it needs some tweaking but nonetheless it’s there)
  • We have at least 3 planning hub technologies already
  • We’re likely on the verge of some announcements regarding the ‘openness’ of what we want to publish with respect to planning.

To wrap this up, lets take advantage of all the work that’s already been done on planning data….consolidate it, improve it, build on it and most importantly, lets not spend more tax payers money by reinventing the wheel!

Let’s not create another planning hub. Thanks to Carol Von Canon


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