7/11/2011

Growing back to the future: allotments in the UK, open data stories and interventions

 

Farida Vis recently took part in EuroHack, a pre-conference workshop in Warsaw, Poland, on 19 October, at the Open Government Data Camp 2011 (OGD), organised by the European Journalism Centre and the Open Knowledge Foundation. The project that Farida and her team worked on during the workshop has been published in the Guardian.

 

EuroHack consisted of a series of short talks combined with plenty of opportunities for hacking in groups in the second part the workshop. We were given an introduction to data driven journalism by data journalist Nicolas Kayser-Bril, who has recently launched J++, a new media company that builds data journalism applications. Friedrich Lindenberg (OKF) and Aidan McGuire (ScraperWiki) gave a thorough overview of scraping, mainly focusing on the very popular ScraperWiki with Friedrich highlighting its application to EU spending data. Finally Chris Taggart (Open Corporates) talked about EU spending data as well as Open Corporates, and gave a hands-on workshop on Google Refine.

 

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My personal interest lies in everyday data, related to ‘mundane issues’ that people relate to easily, principally because they feature in their everyday lives. I’m interested in what Liz Azyan has started calling ‘really useful’ data, which has the ordinary end user firmly in mind. So for some time now, I have been looking at the issue of allotments in the UK. At EuroHack I had not really intended to pitch my project, but having briefly talked about what I was doing to Aidan McGuire before the start of the workshop, he highlighted it on my behalf and then there was luckily no turning back. I was delighted with people’s interest in the project. Below highlights what we looked at on the day and what happened next.

 

What issue did we look at?

An allotment is a small plot of publicly owned land you rent from the council for a small annual fee, giving people the possibility to grow their own fruit and vegetables. I have an allotment myself (here’s a picture) and was lucky that when I decided to get one eleven years ago the waiting list was only two months, so my partner and I got one nearly immediately. Since then those numbers have shot up to the extent that on our site in South Manchester the waiting list is now fifteen years, highlighting a nationwide problem. The last few years have seen a staggering increase in demand, no doubt fuelled by growing broader environmental concern and awareness, yet no significant increase in the numbers of extra allotments created to meet this demand. The New Local Government Network reports that during the 1940s there were around 1.4 million allotments in the UK with only 200,000 today, which partly reflects that ‘growing your own’ goes through cycles of popularity. During a period of complete lack of interest it is difficult for councils to hold on to this land as allotments that nobody wants. But what do you do when it seems everybody wants one again?

 

What were we interested in?

Although it is tempting to simply highlight this problem in a different way, with additional data and accompanying visualisations, I was keen to highlight that whilst I do think there is an issue with councils not providing more sites, it is also clear to me that they are not exactly in a position to necessarily do so given the current economic climate. So therefore whatever we did, it was important to me that we used part of the day to start thinking about alternative solutions to the waiting list crisis. For example by identifying underused plots of lands (brown field sites and others), which could serve as temporary growing spaces (pop-up allotments anyone?). In my attempt to ‘do something about this’ I was joined by Daniela Silva and Pedro Markun from the Sao Paulo based think-and-do tank Esfera; data journalist Nicolas Kayser-Brill; python/js developer and self described open data fan Anna Powell-Smith, and finally Andrew Mackenzie who was at the OGD camp to film, part of an ongoing project that records the open data movement.

 

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What data did we have?

Although there is very little allotment data available, as councils rarely publish it, Transition Town West Kirby (TTWK), led by Margaret and Ian Campbell, has for the last three years used the Freedom of Information Act, to obtain allotment waiting list data through WhatDoTheyKnow. They publish this data, along with a report each year and these figures are now widely used in the mainstream media. The reports however focus on national averages and do not highlight specific differences between councils or identify councils where problems are particularly severe. My co-researcher at Leicester, Yana Manyukhina and I had recently put in our own FOI request to build on the TTWK data. Our request focused on rental cost, water charges, whether discounts were available to plot holders. Aside from this we also requested the tenancy agreements councils use to manage their allotment sites. An analysis of these agreements may reveal further differences between councils, which could prove to be significant to citizens living in these locations. Because I am Manchester based, we also had a look at allotment location data manually collected by Feeding Manchester, which is interested in sustainable food for Greater Manchester.

 

What did we do?

After my introduction, Anna decided to work on the FOI data, using Google Fusion tables. In a UK context, The Guardian Data Store frequently uses these in order to highlight differences per council related to a specific topic. I had previously standardised the TTWK data so that each council now included a figure for how many people were waiting per every 100 allotments (the data set also includes further details about number of sites and allotments per council). Anna and I decided that we would add data from the FOI Yana and I had to the TTWK data, namely: the rental cost, water charges, and discounts given. I need to do further work on standardising the rent charge per council, which now is still expressed in a range of different old fashioned measurements. Allotment sizes were traditionally measured in ‘poles’ and ‘rods’ (from 1908 onwards a standard plot was 10 rods), tough many now use square yards and metres.

Pedro and Nicolas both worked on building a series of scrapers, using ScraperWiki, scraping the Feeding Manchester data, Landshare data (Landshare is an initiative that is already offering alternatives, matching up individuals who have land, with those who wish to cultivate it) as well as a number of council sites. Aside from this Pedro and I also worked with an idea that ScraperWiki’s Julian Todd had given me at an earlier meeting (at OKCON in Berlin), and that is to use OpenStreetMap to get people to mark up allotments. In our extended idea (usefully articulated by Andrew Mackenzie on the day), other possible growing spaces, possibly with a newly agreed land use tag could also be mapped. In the end Pedro built a site that pulled in all the OSM data to show allotment sites in the UK and would update daily every time a new allotment was marked up on OpenStreetMap.

 

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What happened next?

The enthusiasm and the great work we did during hackday meant that I wanted to reflect this in my presentation at the Open Government Data camp the next day.

 

 

I addressed this desire to both highlight the issues over current allotment data collection (lack of ontologies), access to or knowledge of this data combined with this huge surge in demand from ordinary people wanted to grow their own produce. Going beyond simply a better visualisation of council data obtained via FOIs I strongly emphasised the possibility for a technological intervention into this growing (pardon the pun) issue, by building stronger ontologies for allotment data (Pedro and I talked about this a lot afterwards), but also to think beyond the unproductive ‘councils just need to provide more allotments’ deadlock. Following my presentation I had various offers from people keen to help out with the mapping, but one person on Twitter confirmed my feeling that in order to get a lot of people to map, to do this directly in OpenStreetMap was still quite a daunting prospect for the ordinary end user. I toyed with the idea of filming a simple step-by-step tutorial, but in the end Pedro suggested to use a new, more user friendly interface, one he is currently developing for the Sao Paulo Council in Brazil. This is currently still under development, but we will hopefully have an update soon.

Anna and I made excellent progress and had a great chat with Lisa Evans from the Guardian Data Store, at the camp to present, who expressed an interest in putting the allotment data on the date store. Hopefully releasing this data through such a well known and respected site might generate some further interest. Daniela also interviewed me for the Esfera blog and she has written up our EuroHack day in Portuguese here.

All this flurry of activity did not go unnoticed and the project has now received official support from the OKF, with Community Coordinator Kat Braybrooke as the key liaison. Although Kat and I had talked for months about this project already, it seemed that it needed the critical mass, collective brainstorming and hacking at EuroHack and afterwards to push this open data part of the project to the next level. Kat and I will be meeting with a range of NGOs and interested parties soon, who have expressed an interest in pulling resources and making a joint intervention in to this problem. It is hard to express how exciting it was to connect with such amazing people at EuroHack, who all did such a tremendous amount of work on this project and especially to end up with such a great result. An OKF site highlighting the mapping project will launch shortly and we hope to give you further updates in the not-too-distant future. Watch this (growing) space!


If you would like to get involved or receive further info on the project, feel free to get in touch via email or Twitter

 

Farida is very grateful to the EU Commission for supporting her attendance at EuroHack and the OGD Camp with a travel bursary.

 

Resources

  • Collection of links, datasets and tools related to EU spending.
  • Scraping tutorial for non-programmers by ScraperWiki.
  • You can find more photos from the workshop on Flickr.

 

Image credits: OKFN.

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