Tag Archives: open data

Everything at your postcode – proposal for a new website

Over the last few weeks, I have been imagining a website for UK citizens and visitors; where they can enter their postcode and be served a page or pages of hyperlocal links about everything to do with where they live. This post is me continuing that thinking out loud; comments — including the constructively critical — are actively solicited.

Links could be almost anything, from local government services (via DirectGov and OpenlyLocal) to public transport information; from maps to fun things. They would either link to sites which use postcodes as as an argument; or would be built using the target site’s postcode-lookup API.

The site would avoid the need for each hyperlocal website to compile its own list of such links.

Here are a few such links, based on a randomly-selected postcode, B23 6UH (I simply opened a local newspaper and picked the first advert that used a Birmingham postcode). Note that the first link is computed; the rest use the postcode directly.

User would also be able to suggest additional links if they find a good web service which takes a postcode as a locator — for now, please feel free to do so in comments on this post, and I’ll add them to the above list. Purely commercial links, like individual chains’ store locators, would be excluded (a few paid for links, clearly identified as such, might generate enough revenue to cover hosting costs).

As can be seen from the above, the site wouldn’t actually store or generate content; just links. The links could be clustered under headings, or on sub-pages, like “maps”, “local services”, and “fun stuff”.

It might also be possible for the site to determine the user’s nearest postcode, using their browser or device’s GeoLocation feature, or by selection from a map. The site would also accept partial postcodes, such as “B”, “B23” or “B23 6”.

The service could perhaps be “widgetised” for inclusion on other sites. And of course, it would be possible to link to the site using postcode as an argument.

The site would, of course, make data available in RSS, OPML and open data formats; and use microformats.

Unfortunately, though be willing to collate and maintain the links and code some HTML, I lack the programming and graphic-design skills to make such a site, which means that I must rely on the good will of others. Can you help? Should I organise a hack event (a day, or an evening) at a Birmingham venue, to work on this collaboratively?

Or does such a service — curated, rather than spammy — already exist? Would it belong better as an adjunct to an existing service like OpenlyLocal or DirectGov?

Over to you…

Open local public spending data – a potential hitch

There is — quite rightly, in my autocratic and what-does-humble-mean-anyway opinion — a move to have public bodies publish details of every item of spending over £500. I won’t go into the arguments about this, nor the technical issues, because that’s already been done by wiser heads than mine, Oh, OK, wise heads including mine (see comments on the latter document).

However, one thing in particular concerns me. Sometimes, a body — a local council, say, like, but not specifically, the one I work for — will receive grant funding for a project or activity. Such money usually comes with conditions attached.

Now, suppose this funding has two parts: £99,000 to do something which benefits the community as a whole, and £1,000 which must be spent on something seemingly trivial; say, publicising the activity by producing beermats. No beermats; no £99,000 to spend on a worthwhile activity. Such things do happen, if not literally demanding beermats.

Suppose that £1,000 spend is then published, along with hundreds of other items of expenditure. The finance office of the council will not know about the grant funding, or the conditions attached to it, nor do they need to. They will just add an entry to a database, saying “Acme Beer Mats, 1 April 2011: £1,000”, which will then be made available with all the other enteries in that database, as open data

Along come the Daily FMail and the Taxpayer’s Alliance, and before you know it, the media and (ironically, given my frivolous example) bar-rooms up and down the country are full of “Borsetshire Council wastes money on beermats extravaganza on the rates[sic]” headlines.

No doubt the authority will put out a subsequent press statement pointing out the £99,000 of benefits, the unavoidability of the attached conditions, and so on. And no doubt it will receive little if any press attention.

What can council’s do to prevent this scenario? Annotate every spend item in their published data? Surely impractical. List such items separately? I don’t know (and don’t get me wrong, I’m an open-data advocate; and this is a relatively minor matter, which shouldn’t stop such data from being published), but do I hope somebody has an answer.

Over to you…

Footnote: thanks to for encouraging me to blog my rambling comments on this, made during our earlier discussion.

More police forces should publish web pages about wildlife crime officers

I maintain the West Midland Bird Club website. The club serves the four English counties of Staffordshire, Warwickshire, Worcestershire and the Metropolitan West Midlands, and so I wanted to write a little bit about the work of the relevant police services’ Wildlife Liaison Officers (WLOs), and to link to web pages about each of them.

I was surprised to find that none of their websites have a page about their WLOs, or their approach to wildlife crime in general. So I started to look at other forces’ sites, and found very few of them did.

What I Wanted

I decided it would be a good idea to collate a list of the few good examples that exist and conversely the forces which don’t have such a page, not least to encourage them to provide one.

A quick Google search showed that no such list is already in place, so my next step was to check — on Twitter, of course — whether anyone else was working on one. The answer was no, but two projects have more generic lists of police websites and related details in hand: OpenlyLocal and Podnosh.

I decided that I would have to make the list happen for myself, but I wasn’t going to do all the work. of OpenlyLocal kindly offered use of his data on police forces and their home pages and other contact details — it’s open data, under a CC license. That was in XML, though, and I lack the skills to manipulate it, so Chris kindly and quickly provided a dump into CSV format, suitable for use in a spreadsheet. A salutary lesson, there, to anyone publishing open data. While RDF and linked data is the way to go, so that it can be parsed and processed by machines in an sophisticated way, making a format like CSV available as well opens that data up to less technically-gifted users.

How I Did It

I copied the relevant columns from Chris’ document into my own, and made the editable spreadsheet available in Google Docs, for anyone to edit. I then blogged about it, inviting people to help me to full the missing column of wildlife crime pages. I was quickly retweeted by several people and organisations (thank you for that) and, significantly, the initiative was mentioned on the Guardian website by . This resulted in spate if activity, with most of the rows completed within a day or so after the mention. Interestingly, the spreadsheet filled up from the top, so it seems that unknown volunteers were helping with the first gap they came to, rather than that for their local force, which is what I had expected.

A few people shoe-horned prose comments into the URL column, so I added a “notes” column and moved their comments there.

After a few days, only a couple of gaps remained, so I filled these myself, and locked the spreadsheet prevent vandalism (any amendments may be posted below, as comments).


So, whet did we find? Of 51 forces, only 29 have a wildlife crime page — and some of those are patchy. Other forces don’t have one, but mentioned the work of their WLOs in press releases, progress reports and policy or strategy documents — sometimes in PDF files.

In some cases, a search of the force’s website for “wildlife” returns no result at all — a disappointing state of affairs.

PC Duncan Thomas, Wildlife Liaison Officer with Lancashire Constabulary

On the other hand, there were some great examples of best practice, including Lancashire Constabulary, Merseyside Police and North Yorkshire Police, from which other forces can learn. Note that they variously make use of video, and have links to wildlife conservation bodies.

Also of interest is this article about the work of WLOs in Sussex, reproduced on Coldean Residents Association’s hyperlocal site.

What next

This is what I hope will happen now:

  • Each police force should set up a locally-relevant web page about wildlife crime and their response to it, with relevant contact details, modelled on the best practice we found.
  • These pages should have short, permanent URLs so that links to them will not decay when forces change their technology
  • A central police website could ask an enquirer their postcode or address (or simply geo-locate their browser), and type of concern, then return the relevant page (whether it’s about wildlife crime, drug dealing or lost property) using the model adopted by LocalDirectGov
  • Websites listing details of all UK police forces’ details — like OpenlyLocal and Podnosh — could include their wildlife crime URLs
  • Wildlife websites with pages for each county (for example, Fatbirder, BirdGuides etc) could include the relevant forces’ wildlife links.
  • Local wildlife organisations (Wildlife Trusts, county bird clubs, RSPB Local Groups) should link to their local forces’ wildlife page

How you can help

  • Publicise this blog post and the open data that’s been genreated
  • Make use of that data
  • Write to your local force, if they don’t already have a page, and ask them to provide one — feel free to send them the URL of this post
  • Ask your councillor to encourage the local force to do so
  • Ask your local Wildlife Trust, bird club or related organisation to do the same
  • Let everyone know about the results, in the comments below, or with a pingback from your own blog post

I’ll notify national organisations like the RSPB, RSPCA and British Trust for Ornithology.

Meanwhile, if you wish to report wildlife crime in progress, call 999, or otherwise report it to Crimestoppers (who will treat the report as anonymous if you wish) on 0800 555 111.

Thank you

Finally, thank you to everyone who’s contributed to this project, to date.


20 August 2010: Warwickshire Police’s wildlife crime page was missed, because it was on a separate site, where their site’s search didn’t find it. It’s now been moved to the main site, as a result of this post.

3 September 2010: Northumbria Police pages created in response to this campaign.

June 2011: Staffordshire Police page created in response to this campaign (per their e-mail).

Please Help Me to Compile a List of UK Police Forces’ Wildlife Crime Pages

As a birder and general nature lover, wildlife crime concerns me. Whether it’s the poaching and smuggling of ivory and tiger parts, the disturbance of nesting birds, or badger baiting, I want it stopped.

Of course, it’s the responsibility of each police force in the UK to act against such crimes, and to take seriously reported incidents. Some forces appoint specialist “Wildlife Crime Officers”, under various titles. Some have web pages about such officers and their work against wildlife crime, like this excellent example from North Yorkshire Police. Others, sadly, do not.

I’m interested in finding out which police forces do have such officers, and which publicise their existence online. But that’s a big task, and I can’t do it alone. So I’m asking for your help.

Please have a look at this spreadsheet on Google Docs (many thanks to OpenlyLocal for the list of forces and their home pages). Find your own (or any!) force, and, if it’s not already listed search its site for a wildlife crime page. If you find one, add its URL to the spreadsheet. Otherwise, enter “none”.

I’ll find a permanent home for the results; hopefully that will encourage forces which do not have a page about wildlife crime on their website to add and maintain one.

Meanwhile, if you wish to report wildlife crime in progress, call 999, or otherwise report it to Crimestoppers (who will treat the report as anonymous if you wish) on 0800 555 111.

My Open Data Challenge to UK Local Government: a Wikipedia Page for Every Council

At yesterday’s excellent West Midlands “Open Data: Challenges & Opportunities” event, hosted by the West Midlands Regional Observatory, Chris Taggart (), who runs the very useful Openly Local website, aggregating data about councils and their elected members, mentioned the problems he has extracting linked data about councils from Wikipedia, via DBPedia, because Wikipedia tends to conflate places with their local authorities.

See, for example, the Wikipedia article on the Metropolitan Borough of Dudley; or those on , which (at the time of writing) has only a small section on its town council and Lichfield district (so a challenge there for Stuart Harrison, , and his colleagues!); and compare them with the separate articles about and ; or , the , and . The former, all-on-one-page, pattern is far more common. (Disclosure: I created some, and have edited all, of those articles.)

I suggested at the event that this problem could be solved if staff from each UK council simply started a Wikipedia article about their council, where none already exists.

As each UK council is, inherently, (to use the Wikipedia jargon) notable, there should be no issue with this, provided that they are mindful of Wikipedia’s policy on conflicts of interest (which explicitly allows for such editing), and the requirement that articles maintain a neutral point-of-view, and be referenced. Short “stub” articles can be created in the first instance.

(If council staff are hesitant to do so themselves, then I can help to pair them up with volunteer Wikipedia editors who will assist them, or create articles directly.)

Update: Added Dudley & Lichfield district examples.