A reply from the UK government to my request for road gritting open data

The government website data.gov.uk, to quote its about page, hosts datasets — as open data — ”from all central government departments and a number of other public sector bodies and local authorities” (my emphasis). This is a good thing.

The site’s FAQ says “If there are particular datasets that you believe should be made available more quickly, please use the data request process” (link in original). This is also good.

Accordingly, in September 2012 (that’s sixteen months ago) I submitted a request asking for:

Lists of roads gritted by councils and other bodies, in times of freezing temperatures, with priorities and criteria if applicable.

I specified that those “other bodies” included the Highways Agency, which is “an Exec­u­tive Agency of the Depart­ment for Trans­port (DfT), and is respon­si­ble for oper­at­ing, main­tain­ing and improv­ing the strate­gic road net­work in Eng­land on behalf of the Sec­re­tary of State for Transport” (again, quoting the HA’s about page) and thus an agency of the UK government. They grit most motorways and certain trunk (“A”) roads.

Highways Agency 1995 Foden Telstar gritter truck, 4 February 2009

A highways Agency gritting vehicle at work

The data would allow my fellow volunteers and I to label (“tag”) gritting routes in OpenStreetMap, improving Satnav routing. Here’s a map of some we’ve already done.

I have, today, received a reply from the Cabinet Office, which I reproduce here in full and verbatim:

Hi Andy,

I am getting in touch with you about your data request. I sincerely apologise for the length of time it has taken to get you a response to your request. Local Authorities are responsible for winter gritting within their boundaries. Local Authorities are data owners and they are responsible for the format, access and cost of their data. This means that you will need to get in touch with the Local Authority’s [sic] who’s [sic] data you are seeking directly for access to their data. Some Local Authorities do publish information about gritting on data.gov.uk, but they do not have a reporting requirement. You may find the following links helpful.

http://data.gov.uk/data/search?q=gritting – Data.gov.uk Local Authorities gritting data
http://www.local.gov.uk/community-safety/-/journal_content/56/10180/3510492/ARTICLE – Local Government Association information on how Local Authorities gritting responsibilities.
https://www.gov.uk/roads-council-will-grit – Access to each local Authority page on gritting
http://www.highways.gov.uk/our-road-network/managing-our-roads/operating-our-network/how-we-manage-our-roads/area-teams/area-9/area-9-our-winter-work/ – Highways Agency information
http://www.highways.gov.uk/about-us/contact-us/ – Contacting the Highways Agency
http://www.highways.gov.uk/freedom-of-information-2/ – information on submitting an Freedom of Information request to the Highways Agency

I am very sorry for the amount of time it has taken us to get back to you. I hope this helps.

Kind Regards,

[name redacted]
Transparency Team
4th Floor
1 Horse Guards Road, London, SW1A 2HQ
Email: [redacted]@cabinet-office.gsi.gov.uk
Find out more about Open Data @ Data.gov.uk

I note the following:

  • Although an apology for the — inordinate — delay in replying is given, no reason for that is offered.
  • It should — surely? — be possible to make one centralised request rather than having to make the same request to every local authority (at the relevant tier) in the country?
  • No mention is made of Highways Agency data, other than links to their web pages, including their FoI page.
  • The reply was sent to me by email, but is not in the Comments section of the page for the request, so is not available to other interested people, including the person who commented in support of it. (I’ll post a link to this post there.)

What do you think?

I hope my recent request, for The National Heritage List for England, receives more prompt consideration and achieves a more positive outcome.

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About Andy Mabbett

Enjoying my new freelance career, helping organisations to understand on-line communities, open content, and related issues.
This entry was posted in annoyances, hyperlocal, local government, open data, OpenStreetMap, volunteering and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to A reply from the UK government to my request for road gritting open data

  1. garrilla says:

    Hi Andy,

    The legislation requires each public body to respond to FoI requests, so a central request, although rationale from the data users end, doesn’t fit the legislative model. For example, what if you make that request and a few authorities don’t comply because of local issue? Whose responsibiity would that be? How would the ICO investigate? And so on. Data.gov.UK is just a repository after all.

    However, I’ve had the same issues, and it seems to me that we need something like ‘what do they know’ but for all bodies covered by the legislation, where a user could filter and select multiple bodies to make a single request, but is sent out individually to each body. their replies could be the aggregated on that site and shared to data.gov.UK repository.

    It maybe something that mysociety might look at, or a group of devs could do it – on a voluntary basis or maybe try and get some funding for it.

    I hope you solve you problems soon,

    Garry

    • Andy Mabbett says:

      Hi, Garry,

      Thanks for the response. However, this isn’t about FoI requests, but requests for data to be made available as open, linked, data – hopefully in such a way that it is regularly updated, obviating the need for FoI requests.

  2. kate Goodall says:

    Hi Andy.

    A few comments, some of which may well be clumsily worded as I’m keen to comment, but desperate to get dinner too.

    Sixteen months is a long time to wait for a response. I suspect few working in the public sector could claim to have always responded to enquiries within corporately set (or other) target timescales. I do think you could have reasonably expected a little more after such a wait though.

    I am surprised though, that you, as someone who has spent a good many years working in local government, seem to have had a real expectation that local and central government have connections that would make sharing such data easy. I can only offer my personal opinion that the connection just isn’t there and tbh I wouldn’t expect it to be.

    You asked for “Lists of roads gritted by councils and other bodies, in times of freezing temperatures, with priorities and criteria if applicable.”. You stated that “The data would allow my fellow volunteers and I to label (“tag”) gritting routes in OpenStreetMap, improving Satnav routing.”

    With regard to the question itself, I wonder if it was too specific, albeit that they still wouldn’t have been able to provide LA data? Or maybe I’m too jaded trying to understand what it is people want when they submit FoIs and so on?

    In my borough, as I think you know, we currently have six gritting routes and have an operational plan detailing the decision making process that dictates when we grit these set routes. But we send the gritters out when the temperature is above freezing sometimes, because local forecasts have high confidence in temperatures dropping hours later. Or, if rain isn’t forecast, we might send them out earlier than we strictly need to, because they can then complete their routes before the peak travel times and the anticipated drop in temperature. Or maybe we’ll grit in the evening because confidence is high that there will be hoar frost around first light. Oh and we don’t always send the crews out when the temperature is freezing or lower; if there’s no existing or anticipated moisture, ice won’t form. Sounds a bit nit-picky, I know, but from the point of view of the poor sap who receives this request, its much easier to give a list of call outs than have to wade through all the records finding out what the temperatures were each time the crews went out. The criteria and priorities are currently fairly simple and consistent.

    Also, although all (I imagine) highway authorities have similar operational plans, there are also local factors to be taken into account. This may be, for example, road closures for roadworks affecting set routes, or maybe a locally made decision to spot treat areas due to a water leak or standing water. Locally, we’ve been trialing and assessing additional gritting of the next day’s bin routes (during severe weather) recognising how important refuse collection is to residents. Wading (or dare I say skidding?) through the daily records to pull out information like this would take a very long time. So, for the purposes of useful mapping, it would probably only be of use to map routine gritting routes, wouldn’t it?

    I can imagine you’re probably tugging your beard and cursing me by now, so I’ll remind you that my offer is still there to help with mapping :-)

    Finally, not sure if you’re aware that there are some significant changes due for next winter in how/why/when/where we (not just this borough) grit? I suspect this project may become even more challenging, so good luck!

  3. Paul Maltby says:

    Apologies Andy, that is way too late to get a basic reply.

    In the Transparency Team we prioritised the Open Government Partnership, G8 Open Data Charter and the National Information Infrastructure through spring and summer this year so we knew there would be a hit on response times to data requests, but that hardly explains this case. Often there is activity in the background after requests have been submitted – we have a small team of relationship managers who find the various officials responsible for the data in government departments and where necessary plug away to get the data released. We need to get better as a team to keep those who have taken the trouble to request a data set informed about what is going on as we work away to get the data out. But again, this doesn’t appear to apply in this case.

    I think the fundamentals of the reply are probably right – as Kate says above data.gov.uk is a central repository but I’m not sure we should have a team rerouting requests around to local authorities, I suspect our version of this would be more cumbersome than Gary’s suggestion of a mysociety-type solution. However, I’ll chase the Highways Agency data aspect with the team.

    We pride ourselves on the genuinely interactive nature of the open data endeavour and although we get this right the majority of the time (and I’d rather we tried and failed occasionally) I hate it when we get these interactions wrong. And as for the misplaced apostrophes…

    I’m sorry we didn’t get it right this time, we’ll reflect on it and keep seeking to improve.

    Paul Maltby
    Director, Open Data and Government Innovation
    Cabinet Office

    • Andy Mabbett says:

      Thanks for the response, Paul.

      To be clear, I don’t expect you have the resource (let alone “a team”) to be chasing every (relevant) local authority to provide and maintain the requested data; but I so think you could have some way (mailing list, newsletter, etc) of disseminating widely-applicable requests like mine to the nominated contact in such councils. If not, perhaps you should make that clear above the form on your website, which invites such requests, currently without a caveat.

      I also note that “local authorities” is a category under “data holder” on your roadmap dashboard, with 19 such requests listed, including mine.

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