Open Access News

News from the open access movement

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Making public data free for useful enhancements

Michael Cross and Charles Arthur, Don't panic: we'll email if someone plans to demolish your house, The Guardian, January 25, 2007.  Excerpt:

Almost as well known as Monty Python's parrot sketch is the rant in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy against local council planning by its hero, Arthur Dent. Where did he discover the council's plans to demolish his house? "It was 'on display' in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying, 'Beware of the Leopard.'..."

But that was before the net. Nowadays, councils are very open with their planning data, which you will find on their websites. Generally, any application, with plans, is available to view. From the standpoint of the Free Our Data campaign, which says that impersonal data collected by government should be available online for free, that's an excellent start.

But, thought Richard Pope, a professional programmer and web designer, it could be done even better. So over the course of five days last Christmas, he put together, hosted by the MySociety group, which "screen-scrapes" dozens of councils' sites for the text of their planning reports, and extracts essential details such as location and postcode.

The result: a simple site that emails you if, for example, there's an application to open a nightclub in your road, or - as happened to prompt Pope's work, in an echo of Arthur Dent's experience - a bulldozer turns up one day to demolish the much-loved Victorian pub around the corner from you....

Pope's plan is that once you enter your postcode, his system will alert you to any planning schemes in your area....

The irony is that government already offers a similar service to search for planning applications through its national planning portal at But rather than five days, it has taken a year to build; it doesn't send out proactive alerts; and a formidable copyright notice says that the National Planning Application Register is copyright of a commercial company, Emap Glenigan (whose website is used for the searches).

By contrast, Pope hasn't worried much about copyright: "This information should be available to all." We agree.