Matchmaking open data geeks and local mappers

Two parallel worlds are starting to rub up against each other – open data enthusiasts and local activist groups. As Sam Smith has pointed out, embedding the power of open data in other worlds such as local activism has barely begun.

Maps are one medium where I’ve been trying to bring these worlds together.

Stepping into the ring

In the left corner we have people like Rob Hopkins, who has just written a great summary of Transition Town groups mapping wild food, local groups and visions of the future. This wonderful work makes use of relatively open tools like Google Maps, but (so far as I can see) they make absolutely no use of open data, and keep all of their data in their own separate mapping systems.

In the right corner we have open data crowds like OpenStreetMap, and after some prodding from me the Greater London Authority and the Department for Energy and Climate Change. Together we have stacks of open data on renewable energy generators, allotments, recycling bins and more. But so far we haven’t made it easy for activists who aren’t super-geeks to do interesting things with this data, nor to use platforms like OpenStreetMap to store data they gather.

This is a great shame because both camps believe in the value and power of co-operation and collaboration.

Here in Southwark (south east London) I have found several local groups, the council and the Greater London Authority all trying to map local food growing, or at least interested in getting the results. Why not all work together on one open dataset that everyone can then use?

With OpenStreetMap it is possible for everybody and their dog to gather data of interest to them, and put it all in one place. That way you don’t duplicate effort, and you benefit from other people’s work.

It should also be possible to share the tools so local groups don’t need a resident geek to reinvent the wheel. Google Maps enabled people to make maps of local fruit and nut trees with ease; sadly OpenStreetMap has required too many geeky power skills to do this.

Touching knuckles

Which is why I have been working on the grandly-titled Sustainable London Map (ta-dah!) with much-appreciated help from another Sam Smith, Shaun McDonald and Andy Allan. This offers two tools for local groups:

First, easy access to the data we hold. My tool generates KML files with nice pointy clicky icons for all sorts of data related to low carbon power, waste, transport, food and culture. It pulls fresh data out of OpenStreetMap every hour. You can use these KML files on your own map or desktop programme, and you can embed the map itself if you don’t already have one.

Second, a customised editor (using Potlatch 2) that focuses only on the features that the map shows and that makes the presentation of all the OpenStreetMap data a little less overwhelming.

If every community group, charity and government body in London used OpenStreetMap then we would all be contributing to one definitive map instead of all doing our own thing ignorant of each other.

I have extended a hand to friends and contacts in my local Southwark who want to map food growing and renewable energy generators. Through various emails and pub meetups I hope they will begin to use the maps on their web sites (as Peckham Power have done) and to use the customised editor to enter new data.

I have also started discussions with staff at the GLA (who lead on Londonwide food strategy and projects like Capital Growth) and Southwark Council. To my slight surprise, they have been very enthusiastic about the potential of this work. If our tentative first steps in Southwark bear fruit, there is interest in rolling this approach out across London.

Pulling my punches

Given that this is a hobby, competing with a life and my Green Party responsibilities, I’m taking it all quite slowly. I know there are good reasons whymany groups will want to stick with the tools they already have, perhaps because they don’t have the time to make the switch, or because we don’t yet offer something they need.

But if you’re involved with any mapping exercises for local community groups and would like to find out how you could make better use of open data, or if you’re an open map data geek interested in helping bridge the divide with local groups, get in touch by leaving a comment below.


  1. davespod said:

    This is fantastic. I wish you every luck in engaging local groups and the GLA to make use of this. I think before long, you’ll be getting calls from groups in other cities asking how they can set one up.

    I especially like the custom Potlatch 2. Excellent idea to use a wireframe background in the editor. I wonder whether less busy tiles might work better in the map view, too – maybe Mapquest tiles?

    30th November 2010
    • Tom Chance said:

      I’ve been thinking about using other tiles… I really like Mapquest when zoomed right in, but the wider views seem very car-centric. I’m also not sure how to use them.

      Thanks for your other kind comments.

      1st December 2010

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