Like Nick Booth, I was pretty excited to hear of the results of this FOI request for data about parking fines from Birmingham City Council. Not so much as because I care about parking fines, but because of the opportunity to see some of the huge chucks of data that we’re all pressing for release automatically rather than only on request. This request (check out the wording for a great example of how to phrase these requests so you get everything you ask for) was put in by Heather Brooke as part of an investigation on the new Help Me Investigate site (disclaimer: I’m part of the community management team on this).

Plotting the data on a map (alongside other data) could show all manner of things — but more importantly raise questions that are worth investigation: are regulations enforced more in certain areas, does enforcement contribute to lowering numbers of accidents on those roads, whatever anyone cares enough about.

But, not easily. Yet. The spreadsheets reveal that the location data in there is just shy of being able to be plotted on Google Maps (or similar) without altering:

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The locations aren’t detailed enough for plotting by the tools we might use quickly, for use internally in Birmingham City Council they’re fine. As things readable by humans they’re fine. But to quickly pop something on a map there’s no tool I know of that will let you say “all these roads are in Birmingham, UK” — so the mapping software can’t plot.

Of course you can write a script to add “, Birmingham, UK” to each (or do it by hand) but that’s not simple — it becomes the work of coders rather than “the public”, will enough people be interested?

Yes data in public is better than private, yes get any data out there so some people can use it; but to really unleash the power then that data will need to be collected and stored with “free” use in mind. Are organisations ready for that?

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