This is by way of a short overview of the session I ran at CityCamp Brighton on Saturday proper post on the whole event to follow. Being chair of the judging panel meant that I could’t pitch it so I am hoping that the write up at least will be of use.

The basic premise is the fact that people do not live in postcodes or wards and they definitely don’t live in lower supra-output areas. Neither do they live in Neighbourhood Policing areas or even in Parishes a lot of the time. People live in communities and the reach and geography of these are defined by the people – not by the data. This is an essentially narrative led view of the world that requires us to view community as a living thing as opposed to a post hoc measurement.

The suggestion is that we enable people to draw the shape of their community on a map and that we then serve data back to them on the basis of where they say they live – rather than where we put them for administrative purposes.

We were lucky enough to have people in the group from the Council, Police, Community groups and actual residents so we had a productive session.

Before we go any further – this session was very much focused around communities of place not communities of interest. Though we all fully accept the fact that not all communities are geographical this was our interest for the 80 mins we had together.

Data? What data?
We started by taking a view as to what data actually exists that can be matched by whatever means to longitude and latitude so that it could be treated in this freehand way. The list was legion:

  • Neighbourhood policing data – this is organised by neighbourhood policing areas
  • Snap points – the Police assign incidents to common points so as not to identify specific locations
  • Point data generally – anything that does have a longitude / latitude
  • Ward – smallest electoral unit
  • Lower Supra-Output areas and Output areas – have a look at the ONS definitions for these
  • Logical operational boundaries – these are the areas that make sense for specific service delivery tasks – for example waste collection routes
  • Postcode – this is where the postman thinks you live….
  • Property Gazette – and this is actually where your house is….

So – the good news is that all this data is there – the question for the #opendata folks is how actually useable it all is but let’s not dwell on that problem right now……

The devil is of course in the detail
The big issue is that many of these data sets do not, and probably should not, connect to specific points and so its gathered and managed into larger sets which are not going to be congruent with the areas that people actually draw on the map – in fact this is the essence of the problem.

Our proposed solution is that we display the map areas that data sets relate to surrounding the area that has been created by the user and that they can decide the relevance for themselves. That way we are being clear about how the data works and also allowing people to choose the information that makes most sense to them.

How would it actually work?
The user would draw – either with the mouse or touch screen – the area on the map that they were interested in and then have the opportunity to save the drawing. This would then be used to query the data – basically using the map in place of the usual postcode search. Simples.

Where point data exists we will simply display this, however aggregated data will need to be returned as a whole set as you can’t necessarily break this down further.

Rather than try and recalculate statistics based on your chosen geography the tool would return all of the relevant data as an overlay to your map and you would be able to choose which ones you felt were useful. Imagine a honeycomb with your drawing a blob in the middle….

Interpreting the data
We were trying to keep a tight scope for the project and so declared data interpretation and further exploration tools out of scope – partly because we felt that a tool like this could support a lot of other tools. However we did have two immediate thoughts:

  • It would be great to have traffic lights or something that would establish relvance of the data. Relevance is something of a moving target but in this case we are thinking of a measure which shows how good the fit is between the returned data set and your chosen area – ie the degree to which any stats returned fit the group you are interested in.
  • We also wanted to be able to show national and regional norms against your point data. This may become statistically problematic – but not impossible.

Crowdsourcing the world
The starting point for this is a desire to show relevant data to people but our vision was that you capture these maps and use them to start to redraw the map bringing service delivery together with real communities – breaking down barriers between different parts of public sector as they all have the opportunity to view the same crowdsourced view of the world rather than their traditional boundaries.

Individuals might save multiple maps to reflect where they live, work, commute or have family which also gives us the opportunity to understand more of the narrative of people’s lives.

Does it already exist?
We don’t think so but no good idea exists in isolation so thanks to Dom Campbell for sending us these links:

What needs building?
All of it! But in an attempt to entice a little open source collborative coding this is my view of the discrete bits:

  • Really nice front end for the map drawing
  • Code to store the (multiple) maps against individuals and plug this into different identity management systems so that this is portable
  • Code to check new maps against stored drawings and suggest a best fit
  • Code that can return point data and display within the drawn maps
  • Code that returns data sets as on/off layers alongside the drawn maps – which can then be saved against the map record as well

And then all of this would need to be implemented against various open / opening data sets from around the city.

If we get this far….then we would then like people to be able to raise queries / corrections against the data as well as add personal stories that can give a richer local feel but let’s not run before we can walk….

There are all kinds on interesting things you could do with GPRS for a mobile app – for example letting people walk their boundaries instead of drawing the or even letting them know which community they are in (lots to consider on that one). However in the interest of simplicity this is at the moment a browser based project.

What next?
Well – I don’t have a huge amount of time to do anything on this but I will share this and get some wider comments on it.  We may of course decide to build it at public-i – we’ll be thinking about it at least.

If the interest is there then I’ll pop along to the brighton open data group and see if anyone is interested in having a go… let me know what you think.