21st February 2012

Using Geography in an Open-Data City


The ‘How can we transform neighbourhoods together?’ GeoVation Challenge is looking for great ideas using geography, technology and design to help people help each other in their communities across the country.

Greg Hadfield, a former national newspaper journalist and internet entrepreneur, is organising the UK’s first Open-data Cities Conference. In this guest post, he outlines the importance of geography in an open-data city.

The Open-data Cities Conference seeks to focus on how publicly-funded organisations can engage with citizens to build more creative, prosperous and accountable communities.

It will be attended by more than 200 people from the country’s biggest cities, including executives from public and private sectors, arts and cultural organisations, as well as the creative and digital industries.

The conference – to be held at Brighton Dome Corn Exchange on April 20 – will address profound questions facing cities and citizens in the 21st century.

What do we mean by an “open-data city”? How do we use emerging technology to create the future we want, rather than wait passively for technology to create a take-it-or-leave-it future for us? And how do we ensure UK cities are at the forefront of an historic shift?

The conference builds on the work of the Open-data Brighton and Hove Group over the last year or so.

During that time, the group’s 120 members have focused on which datasets will be most useful to developers and in what order of priority.

The myriad civic data we have talked about relates to school performance, catchment areas, and property prices; bus times and bus-stops, taxi ranks, car parks, and traffic congestion; about energy use, CO2 emissions, and carbon footprints. The list is literally endless.

Throughout, however, group discussions have repeatedly returned to maps and mapping: maps as navigational devices; maps of roads and transport routes; maps to delineate postcodes, geographical communities, or socio-demographic clusters; and maps to show all sorts of boundaries, between parliamentary constituencies, electoral wards, polling districts, and school catchment areas.

In brief, the key question is: what are the mapping needs of an open-data city and how can such needs be met.

When most of us think of maps, we think of the physical environment: landmarks, roads, buildings, contours, and so on. But what sort of maps will be useful in open-data cities?  Much will remain the same. The fundamental real-world infrastructure of the city will be the basis on which most maps are built. The information necessary to build and re-build or re-purpose such maps will be openly available.

For example, for someone with access to all the election data about a city – political parties, candidates, votes, turnout, location of polling stations – it will be easy to visualise such data on a map of polling districts, wards and constituencies.

Suppose, though, that the emergence of open-data cities coincides with the creation of the “internet of things”, cities in which uniquely-identifiable “things” are linked to information-rich virtual representations on the internet.

Suppose also that the devices accessing to the internet are not restricted to desktops, laptops, tablets, and smartphones.

What if your car is connected to the internet? What sort of maps might then be required by someone living in – or visiting – an open-data city?

New landmarks on the cityscape might include:

It is not clear who will create such applications and such maps. Many people might expect it to be Google, Facebook, Foursquare, Twitter, or the next big thing. I have my doubts.

More likely, it will be the new generation of open-data cities that will take the lead, by self-consciously creating and curating the data that can help meet the needs of the individual city and citizen.

To find out more, come along to the Open-data Cities Conference on Friday, April 20.

If you have an idea  that uses Ordnance Survey products and services, including OS OpenData or OS OpenSpace  to transform your neighbourhood, enter it on the GeoVation Challenge to be in with a chance to win a slice of the £115 000 prize fund.