A work colleague was telling me last Thursday about his family's struggle to get hold of the details of a planning application for a new-build school on a field at the bottom of their garden. When they finally managed to get hold of the plans – any scale or measurements that would tell them how close to their garden, or how high, the new building was to be were absent. That can make it rather tricky to make an informed decision on responding to a planning application.
So we started talking about the potential presented by tools like Google Earth for genuine 3D planning applications that could let you see exactly how a building might affect you. Or that would let citizens engage in informed dialogue with architects and planners on the creation of democratised, accessible and creative public spaces and building projects.
The possibilities are exciting. The reality, in the UK at least, may lag behind.
The licence fees demanded by Ordinance Survey for UK mapping data continue to stiffle geo-related innovation, and even finding out about the planning applications near you can be a challenge, let alone being able to effectively visualise what the applications amount to.
So whilst we've got access to a growing number of free-to-use tools for online mapping (not least google maps and earth), and while efforts to create wholly free mapping data like the amazing OpenStreetMap are groundbreaking, we're still short on the depth of data and the open access that we need to really innovate and make a difference with our geodata.
Interactive maps can be really effective ways of visualising information with a geographic compotent. For example, if you want to find participation workers near you making use of Hear by Right, the Local Network Map lets you see who is around far easier than any listing would.
Up until now, finding out the co-ordinates of a UK address to be able to plot address-linked information onto a map either meant paying a lot to commercial providers for access to a postcode or address database that could tell you – or putting (as the HbR Local Network Map does) with being accurate to within one or two miles by using free postcode databases and geocoders.
The lovely people at Google have somehow managed to get around the prohibitive costs to provide free UK geocoding giving street-level accuracy.
This makes a big difference to the sort of non-commercial geo-information services it could now be possible to provide for the UK. I'll certainly be looking again at whether we can finally exlore getting a good UK Fairtrade Map system working for local Fairtrade Town Campaigns.
Geolocating the UK in Drupal
Given my firm belief that the best possible Content Management System for almost all forms of web-application has to be Drupal, I've created an update for the Drupal Location Modules UK include files here which makes use of the new UK google geocoding.
Combined with my generic fallback patch which uses the fantastic geonames service to make sure Drupal returns a location wherever possible, this means worldwide geolocation coverage can be very workable indeed.
Still a way to go
Even though Google have made UK geocoding available to the masses, there is still a long way to go before we can really get the full benefit of UK geodata without being saddled with prohibitive costs. Even with the fantastic efforts of Open Street Map we still have no country-wide mapping data that anyone can freely print off to create a local community map, or to use for creative applications. Citizens continue to be charged stiffling fees for accessing public data. For more on the need to bring in big changes to the way public geodata and other data is managed – keep an eye on the Free Our Data blog here.