Map-Based Planning Data as Open Data

I chose Open Data in the title as it is in vogue at the moment, for very good reasons. Making data open allows people to use and re-use it, particularly for developing applications (apps) and programming interfaces (APIs) that are often of community interest. This can include games - Ordnance Survey's release of a UK map in Minecraft format has become their most downloaded dataset, downloaded more times than all their other digital products combined. Also, the use of Open Source Software removes the high entry barrier to anyone with computing skills and interests: Quantum GIS (QGIS), PostGIS spatial database and Python are all available free of charge (with a donation recommended where suggested). Finally, Ordnance Survey has made digital mapping increasingly available through public sector agreement and as open licensed products, greatly increasing the scope for providing information in a spatial context.

So what should the planning profession do, to make planning interesting to the digitally-aware public? 

Most planning activities rely on a spatial dataset at some point. These fall under two main categories: development plans and development management. Some authorities make development plans available online to view, which is better than nothing, but not sufficient in the current age: the internet pioneer Tim Berners-Lee has said "I'm not interested in your data - I'm interested in merging your data with other data. Your data will never be as exciting as what I can merge it with." So viewing data alone isn't sufficent - users need to have direct access to the data, ideally as a Web Feature Service which can be linked to dynamically, rather than as a download. (To my knowledge there are only two authorities in Scotland which make some datasets available as Web Feature Services). Developement Management is more tricky as datasets (planning applications) are locked-down in casework management systems such as Uniform, and not readily shareable. But, as Uniform is a relatively consistent product across Scotland, the planning community needs to work together to remove technical barriers to sharing. (An example is the TellMeScotland web page which reproduces live planning - and other - notices on a view-and-click basis).

However, central guidance and policy on spatial data management is also required. It's no use having 32 different datasets that do not align easily together without significant integration effort. Government guidance on spatial data management is required to allow consistent integration as well as to promote best practice in managing thematic datasets. 

So what can be done? Planners at all levels, public and private sectors, development planning and development management, need to understand the benefits of open digital data and to promote these within organisations, to gain executive interest and encourage modest investment that will realise efficiencies and better practice leading to improved performance. These datasets already exist: the effort is needed in making them available and making them consistent. 

This is where I declare an interest. I work for the Improvement Service, taking a central approach to advancing public sector spatial data availability. This is still early days, but a link to a product is below. This has all the community councils in Scotland on a single map as an information service, aligned with local authority boundaries and the republished Tell Me Scotland notice layer to allow a quick look-up of published notices.

We'll be talking to councils, government and planners over the next few months with further initiatives, but I'd encourage anyone interested to contact us. I'm at and on Linkedin

Why the contribution is important

This will save money and promote citizen engagement. As digital expectations increase (with private sector companies moving to a customer-centred approach), alienation with a paper-based planning system will also increase.  It's increasingly anachronistic that planning authorities still post out neighbour notifications rather than tweeting these or publishing these on a web map. 

Provision of planning spatial data in a consistent format as open data will offer opportunities to streamline consultation and reduce the request overhead on planning authorities to provide data, whether from the public or from other stakeholders such as utility providers. 

As well as improving planning engagement and performance, this will enhance integrated policymaking across other government departments and agencies such as Transport Scotland, the NHS, Community Planning Partnerships and across boundaries in terms of Strategic Development Plan areas.  Sometimes within local authorities as well, where siloes and barriers exist.

Making data consistently available allows improvement in accuracy with the identification and resolution of errors. This can also be realised by correlating datasets with other datasets. 

This will also stimulate wider economic benefit and innovation and the promotion of social justice, particularly by combining spatial datasets to identify areas of opportunity or need.  

There is the matter of a European Union directive (INSPIRE) mandating the provision of consistent spatial data as above by 2021, but it is better to focus on the benefits rather than potential penalties.  

by ipaton on February 18, 2016 at 11:52AM

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