Mapitude: Looking ahead at open, public data

1st June 2010

The Saturday before last, Digital Birmingham were happy to sponsor Andrew McKenzie’s Mapitude day at Aquila TV. This followed on from the successful Hackitude event held there in December last year. Both of these events are based

on the idea that if data is released to the public then we will be excited enough by it to create stuff.

Andrew put together a really interesting programme of events over the day, under his strapline of it being a “workshop to develop understanding and practical collaboration between web developers and mappers.” There was one group of people getting excited and making things and another group who were exchanging presentations about mapping.

I wasn’t able to make the event, but speaking to Andrew afterwards he was really enthusiastic about what was achieved. The people getting excited included Chris Taggart of Openly Local and Stuart Harrison of Lichfield – Open Data who focused on the application building, along with Gavin Wray, Michael Grimes and Heidi Blanton who worked on locating the data and constructing the webpage that uses the application to display it.

What they made was this Ward Mapper Alpha page. It takes two adjoining wards in Walsall, where another Mapituder, Dan Slee works and pulls in some data relating to those wards.

What is most impressive about the Ward Mapper is that it is accessing multiple resources on the web to find the data and then presenting them together on the page. Unlike so many of the things I look at that people tell me are mash-ups, this really does mash up data. And it does it in a way that makes it, if not completely trivial, then certainly a whole lot easier, to pull in comparator data from other sources.

Now, the BBC have been showing an excellent series about the history of maps. In particular it has been exploring how maps can be tools of political power and persuasion. One of the clearest examples of this is the controversy caused by the Gall-Peters Projection, which was promoted as a more accurate view of the world than the standard Mercator projection. The main complaint about Mercator is that it exaggerates the size of regions in proportion to how far they are from the equator. As less developed countries also tend to be closer to the equator Peters argued that it diminishes their importance.

The reason I mention this is that with the wider availability of mapping tools, including the recently released Ordnance Survey Open Data sets, more of us will have the ability to create our own maps. And that represents a power shift, and not necessarily one that we can easily predict the effects of.

So, through work like Mapitude, we could see a whole new type of campaigning website; one that uses data collected by public services to question the delivery of the very services they provide. It has the potential to be really interesting, for it to inform people at a much richer level of detail about public service provision and to be highly disruptive.

We have also seen our new government push the open data agenda with its plans to release data on public expenditure, including all council spending of £500 or more. With the need for budget cuts then it is clear that politicians will be really keen to see the public identifying areas of public expenditure which they would like to see cut.

A crowdsourced budget would bring many challenges to a public sector organisation. What will we do if members of the public form groups and use the newly open data to question the provision of services to marginalised groups? It is certainly possible to imagine challenges to services to refugees and asylum seekers or gay teenagers as examples of this.

Many of us who make the case for open data promote all of the benefits of doing it, but I think we do need to recognise that it also presents some difficult challenges ahead as well.

10 Responses to “Mapitude: Looking ahead at open, public data”

  1. Jon Bounds Says:

    It’s very likely that we’ll see more ‘polictical’ interpretation of figures from all sorts of people and organisations. The web might have created a whole slew of mini media, but the danger is that there will be a load of mini-Taxpayer’s alliances.

    I’ve had a fair few conversations about this in the past — especially with Jon Hickman of BCU — it’s something that we need to think about, but it can’t stop the release of data. Hiding the facts isn’t going to work.

    This article in Wired (US) is very persuasive on the need for education in statistics for all — — if data is to become what drives arguments then we all need to have a basic grasp of how to check the presentation and conclusions.

    It’s education that I’d like to see being driven alongside the data release initiatives — and public bodies could help removing the stat-spin from PR activity. Maybe…

  2. Looking ahead at open, public data- Digital Birmingham - jon bounds Says:

    [...] challenges to services to refugees and asylum seekers or gay teenagers as examples of this." [link] by Jon Bounds | Posted in | View Comments | Tags: BirminghamCityCouncil, data, work [...]

  3. Dave Harte Says:

    Supporting the council to free up data should be Digital Birmingham’s core, perhaps only, mission going forward. There, I’ve said it…

  4. John Heaven Says:

    I’m not sure I agree about the danger from groups that want to cause mischief around asylum seekers and other vulnerable groups. Specifically around asylum seekers, it tends to be that people don’t know enough about them rather than knowing too much and there’s enough mischief-making around at the moment.

    I think there is perhaps an issue around plotting things like crime rates, which would empower those who have the money to move elsewhere and could exacerbate the problem by creating ghettos.

    I absolutely agree that one shouldn’t be blinded by optimism, but the suggestion that advocates of open data get twitchy when they realise that people might not come to the “right” conclusions is also to be avoided. I know what you mean, though.

  5. Ward maps on OpenlyLocal (& how I did it) « countculture Says:

    [...] of the credit goes to the guys at #maptitude (writeup here), who put me in a room with the excellent Stuart Harrison from Lichfield District Council in a room [...]

  6. Nick Booth Says:

    Here here Dave! (I think they’re pushing a little at those boundaries)

  7. Simon Whitehouse Says:

    Thanks for the responses, folks. I’ll try and pick you off a comment at a time ;0)

    Jon, I largely agree with you. All organisations, Digital Birmingham included, like to represent their own data in a way that best tells their own story. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with that, although releasing the raw data means others will be able to tell different stories as they see them.

    And yes, we do need to have a better understanding of statistics. I could write a_whole_series of blog posts on how depressing it is that we have a culture that instills pride in people for their inability to understand maths.

    I don’t think you were suggesting this, but just to confirm that I am not advocating hiding the data. I am arguing that we need to have a more nuanced approach towards open data, and that “Open data GOOD. Closed data BAD” is too simplistic an argument.

  8. Simon Whitehouse Says:


    Data can be misrepresented and opening up public expenditure data will make it easier for some people to misrepresent it, willfully or otherwise.

    What I am trying to highlight is the potential for disruption that opening data up will create. Incidentally, I’d also say that the whole enterprise isn’t worth a fig if it doesn’t cause disruption anyway.

    I have listened to some advocates of open data say that *all* public data should be opened up and this is only for the good. I think this is a little simplistic.

  9. Simon Whitehouse Says:


    OK, that’s a challenge. I think to say it is the *only* thing we should be doing ignores a lot of the work that we do. A lot of the value of Digital Birmingham to the city is the wide range of activities we engage in and the reach we have.

    That aside, what is the role for Digital Birmingham now? The argument for Open Data has largely been won and so we need to be looking ahead at the implications for local authorities and helping Birmingham to open its data, make the most of the opportunities it offers and, importantly help citizen groups to negotiate the data to represent that which is relevant to them.

    At the risk of sounding a bit of a creeper, I think that the work both of you (and others) have done with us around the open data agenda mean that Digital Birmingham are now seen to be one of a number of local experts in the field.

    I’ll say that here, because elsewhere I’ll be claiming all the credit for myself ;0)

  10. Speakers and slides: roundup of ‘Open data: challenges and opportunities’ « Observations Says:

    [...] Simon Whitehouse detailed a range of projects Digital Birmingham are involved in. He covered open data in the city, engaging citizens in Lozells and Acocks Green through social media surgeries, how public data is being used for social benefit in Birmingham and several events connecting developers with public sector data such as Hackitude and Mapitude. [...]

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