Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Data, Doubt and Dissent (Part 1, probably)

This may end up being a multi-part piece as various strands come and go in the struggle to create a coherent thought piece on a topic that has been nagging away at me for some time. Yes, it has relevance to geography and location and even to free data and mapping but the underlying motivation derives from a wider philosophical question on the use and impact of data in a hyperlocally enabled globally interconnected world…..bear with me!

So, where to start without being glib or contrarian or wading in the soup of euphemism, the pejorative and the broad brush……

Whether we like it or not, and personally I do, in Britain we live in an incredibly diverse and broadly tolerant society. And yet, and yet…..the manufactured doubt brigade (typically in a ghetto of some kind, whether of the mind, the middle class or the migrant), the furious ignorati and their cohorts in the media, willing and otherwise, chip away at this diversity and tolerance.

We also live in an inter-connected and inter-dependent world where isolationism (or ‘islandationism’?) is denial.

The rallying cries are for political ‘democracy’, transparency, accountability and increasingly for ever more devolved powers. To a huge extent I am in accord with this and I think that the liberation of public sector information has the potential to support the reframing of the state-citizen-third sector relationship (that at one level appears to be emerging) in a positive manner and in a way that accords with these broad ambitions.

I support the idea that 'governments (local and central and their agencies) should establish the principle that the public services should publish in reusable form all the objective, factual, non-personal data on which the public services are run and assessed and on which policy decisions are based or which is collected or generated in the course of public service delivery' (Prof Nigel Shadbolt at the launch of the government's data portal There is of course dispute about the bounds of such a broad demand and about what mechanisms could be deployed to bring this about, how much it would cost (to government and to commercial enterprise that has to date interceded in such provision), what the benefits would be and how the impacts might be felt and delivered. A discussion for another piece.

I guess the concern or issue that I am trying to give voice to relates to the questions “what do people want this data for”, “how are they going to use this data” and similar. It is easy to concur as I do with “we don’t know, let a thousand mashups bloom, our society and the economy will benefit in ways we can’t even guess at” though this was not quite how Sir Tim, Nigel Shadbolt and others have more eloquently expressed it!

The most quoted recent example, but there are many others at, is that of bike accidents in London. The data was released and in short order a mashup of accident blackspots was available that allowed cyclists to change their routes. All well and good and no doubt reducing cycle related injuries and deaths, related NHS costs, lost working hours, emissions, police time and so on, in theory.

However, as a cyclist I wonder whether this isn’t a cheap anti-cycling a cyclist what do I ‘know’ (or think I know)?:

Cycling is or can be ‘dangerous’ or ‘risky’
I get hot and sweaty just getting on a bike
Cyclists almost always come off worse in collisions with any other road user
Risk/danger increases with traffic density
Urban roads have a ‘typical’ set of dangers
Rural roads have a different set of dangers
Riding without suitable identifying gear increases danger (lights etc)
Riding on pavements pi**es people off and gives all cyclists a bad name
Jumping/not stopping at lights does the same
As does riding across zebra crossings and down footpaths
Road edges have glass, nails, cans
Road edges crumble
Roads deteriorate with cracks and potholes at random
Pedestrians often don’t look
Cycle lanes and bus lanes are blocked
Cycle lanes are not contiguous
Cycle lanes rarely go all the way to my destination anyway
Drivers don’t look, don’t think or don’t care
Diesel fumes are worse than petrol fumes
I know my route
I prefer to take the shortest route
I take the same route
Most accidents/risk areas are at junctions

So, this mashup does what for me?

Makes me go further
Increases my time to destination
Adds more junctions and stop/starts

So I have to leave earlier to get sweatier to be exposed to more risks? Yeah, right. This is no fault of the mashup nor am I taking pot shots at this example. I do get uncomfortable with the idea that such sites could, owing to their prominence, inform policy and decision making and the investment that flows from that.

This mashup and the ‘solution’ it offers is analogous to claims about football hooliganism having decreased at grounds when in fact all the added deterrents had done was push those who wanted some ‘action’ to take it to places where those deterrents had yet to be put in place, outside the grounds. The moves didn’t seek to change behaviour at all and it was only a wide ranging shift in tactics (plus of course more surveillance) that has brought about welcome longer term change.

The blackspots will follow the cycle flows; cycling will not be inherently safer - arguably fewer motorists will see cyclists and become ever more oblivious to them.

It would be interesting to get all RTA information involving bikes and cyclist admissions to casualty departments for the same area since records began and start to look at that in the context of frequency of bike use (rising), cause of accident/injury (a relation broke both shoulders when a pothole sheared her front forks – not reported as an RTA or accident blackspot), increase in pro-cycle measures such as cycle lanes, introduction of the Congestion Charge and so on. What makes cycling safer is behavioural change in other road users and by those responsible for the roads.

Of course we want to reduce bike accident rates, of course PSI should be used to help achieve that and hopefully this example is the beginning of a shift in the use of such data to inform policy and investment. However, the broader themes of this now definitely mult-part thesis are only really hinted at...more coming in Part 2.

1 comment:

  1. James - although this posting is still not complete, I sense that you might be heading in the direction of the blog post on the New Zealand experience at:

    Give me a call in Wales sometime!



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