One thing that’s not always talked about in tech is that sometimes projects take a few twists and turns before they find their final path. That’s certainly true of our Keep It In The Community project (KIITC) which aims to map Assets of Community Value across England, in collaboration with Power To Change and MHCLG.
We’ve been blogging about the project as we progress, and if you read Mark’s blog in September you’ll have seen that we began with plans for a full central register, which would retrieve and keep in sync with information from council websites to present a countrywide overview of ACVs, and also allow community groups to register new ones.
As we’d feared, we found that data from councils is in many varied formats, and is often moved around, meaning that getting the site to update automatically as we had first hoped would just be too difficult with the quite fragile approach of scraping and swapping spreadsheets that we had originally explored.
And so we launched KIITC with a snapshot of the data as it existed in September 2018, all manually added by hand, and added functionality that would allow councils to maintain their own records if desired.
Now, there’s another twist in the tale — we’re bringing some of our original vision back to the table. We’re planning some more development which will increase KIITC’s value for everyone: communities, citizens and councils alike.
Features for community groups
If councils don’t have the resources to maintain anything beyond the legally required bare bones register of assets, the community groups who care so passionately about the places and spaces they’re trying to secure will soon be able to get involved and help.
This penny dropped when, in discussions with Locality, the national network supporting community groups, (and who are also funded by Power To Change) we determined that by working together more closely we could realise the ambition we have for KIITC to be a live up to date register of community assets of all types in England.
With their collaboration, we’ll be able to talk to community groups to find out their needs, and then develop features for KIITC that will allow these groups to update existing ACVs and register new ones with details, photographs and stories.
As part of that work in the next couple of months we’ll be adding the ability for anyone to update asset details on the site if they have more up to date information, and we’ll be improving how we display each asset to be more informative and attractive on the page.
So watch this space as we work together on the latest twist in KIITC’s tail as we keep working on this over the next few months.
Image: Donnie Rose (Unsplash)
Keep it in the Community, or KIITC for short (pronounced ‘kitsy’), currently shows a snapshot of over 5,000 England-wide registered ACVs. We hope that researchers of all sorts will use it as a resource.
A nationwide picture
Since the introduction of the Localism Act, community groups up and down England have been taking advantage of the opportunities it affords to nominate places and spaces as Assets of Community Value.
And while the Act also requires local authorities to maintain and publish a register of such Assets, one thing has been missing: the ability to see a picture of how these rights are being used across the country as a whole.
Do some regions contain substantially more ACVs than the norm? Are more applications rejected in some places than others? And just how many Assets of Community Value have been identified to date?
We believe this sort of inquiry is essential if we’re to understand the efficacy of the Act and whether it’s achieving what it was designed to do, and now KIITC makes that possible.
Scaled back ambitions
As you may recall from our previous posts, our original ambition was not only to gather together and publish all the existing data from the ACV records of England’s many councils, but also to invite community groups to submit new applications to their local authorities, directly through the website. From long experience in similar projects, however, we knew that there would be challenges, and indeed this turned out to be the case.
While all councils are legally required to display this data, they’re not given any guidance as to the format in which it should be displayed, and the huge variety of different formats, together with the frequency with which the location of the files in which they are published change, make an automated approach almost impossible, especially within a resource- and time-constrained project.
These factors make it hard to sustain what is really the only practicable approach for a project with limited funding — the automated ‘scraping’ of websites. Scraping sends a small script out onto the web to regularly check whether new data has been added to a location; in this case, each council’s ACV register. A piece of code can retrieve the data and put it into the right format to be republished on your own site: it’s how we published Parliamentary debates each day on TheyWorkForYou.com for many years, for example.
But this is really only a practical option when everyone is publishing in one of a few standardised formats.
What would be a solution? Well, in an ideal world every authority would be putting their records out as lovely, consistent data. But we understand that this is rather an unrealistic expectation.
A data snapshot
Faced with these difficulties, we met with Power to Change, who originally funded the work. We were in agreement that, sad though it was to set aside the other features of the project, there was still great value in collecting a snapshot of all ACV data across England.
So, ambitions of scrapers accordingly readjusted, we manually entered all the relevant councils’ registered ACVs and uploaded them to the site. Please note that some data may not be 100% accurate; it all depends on what we were able to collect at the time.
The most comical result of this is that assets where we don’t have a precise postcode for location may appear to be floating in the middle of the ocean… but these are the minority. And it’s worth remembering that the dataset as a whole is the best available right now.
Of course, the data will quickly become out of date, but we believe that this unprecedented collection will have many uses, nonetheless.
For the moment, we won’t be updating the site with future data, unless further funding becomes available for us to do so. We’ve also put plans for community group submissions on the back burner for now, aware that if we are to provide this service, we need to better what is already out there on the councils’ own websites.
When time allows, we’d like to explore ways to encourage citizens to help keep the site up to date, allowing them to update data that has already been imported, and consider how they might suggest new ACVs to their relevant council via the website.
As part of that vision we’ll need to reach out to councils to demonstrate how we have visualised the data, and work with them to participate.
Open data projects such as these rely on identifying useful and practical ways for public sector organisations to more easily release data in a common and consistent format so that others can make best use of the information — a task that has much wider implications for all sorts of niche datasets such as this.
If you’d like to find out more please get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org: we’d be keen to hear from you if you’d like to help us trial managing your own data on the service.
So we’re pleased to announce the (quiet) beta launch of our latest little site, Keep It In The Community, which we hope will become an England-wide register of Assets of Community Value (ACVs).
The Localism Act 2011 was introduced with a great hope. Its provision for giving groups the right to bid on buildings or land that contribute to community life would allow the protection these assets, potentially taking them into direct community control should they come up for sale.
Sadly, as currently implemented, the law hasn’t yet delivered on that promise.
In Scotland, the legislation comes with an actual right to buy, but in England, that’s not the case, and with developers finding ways around the legislation more often than not, often the best the Act can bring about is the delay of an inevitable change of control. For the moment we’re not expecting the legislation to be given any more teeth.
With Keep It In The Community we intend to at least help support a greater takeup of registration by local communities.
In yet another project built on the flexible FixMyStreet Platform, Keep It In The Community has three main roles:
1. We’re gathering together existing asset listings from the 300+ English councils who hold them, to provide a single synchronised and complete record of all listed and nominated ACVs.
2. We’re providing a straightforward route for established community groups to nominate new ACVs in their community.
3. We’ll allow community members to provide more details, photographs, and useful anecdotes about each registered asset, beyond that required by the legal listing process.
Plans for the summer
So far we have data from around 20 local authorities on the live service, with another 50 or so due to be added over the next few weeks. The remaining councils will be added over the summer. All the data is drawn directly from each local authority and as new assets are nominated or their status changes we’ll update their status on Keep It In The Community.
Whilst we complete final testing we’re restricting the ability of community groups to nominate assets, but hope to fully switch that on shortly, once more of the existing assets are displayed on the site.
The initial process for connecting each council listing is fairly low tech, relying on the scraping of a commonly formatted spreadsheet hosted on each council website.
So for the moment. there will still be a fair amount of manual tweaking to keep things in sync. This is one of those important elements that will be fine to manage when the service is starting out, but may start to creak further down the line if it becomes well used – a classic ‘known known’ issue we’ll need to keep on top of.
Over the summer we’ll be working with a representative set of community groups to extend the features of Keep It In The Community to improve how to submit assets for nomination, and how best to celebrate the listed assets by adding all sorts of local detail and background.
Have a look and let us know what you think so far.
In addition to the initial grant from Power To Change, this project has been implemented with the support of the Plunkett Foundation and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.
A couple of years ago we started discussing a collaboration with the Plunkett Foundation to create a searchable and maintainable public register of Assets of Community Value in England.
After a few delays I’m glad to say that this project, thanks to the generous support of Power To Change, is now taking place and we’re already well under way with initial prototyping and development work.
Now, what’s an Asset of Community Value I hear you ask? According to Locality, who are pretty good source of information on these sort of things, Assets of Community Value (ACVs) are places and spaces in your community that are important to local people and if they come up for sale, the community has the opportunity to bid for them.
ACVs can be anything from your local pub, to a sports pitch or community hall, churches or even the local cinema. Whatever is of most importance to you and your community; and especially what you might want to protect should it change hands or come up for sale.
The Localism Act 2011 requires district and unitary councils to publish a list of nominated, approved and rejected community assets, which can be viewed by the public.
The vast majority of councils publish this information online, but formats and levels of information vary widely, from very basic information to more comprehensive details and support. As a result knowledge and awareness of the community right to bid is very low and take up is equally patchy, so with this project we’d like to help change that.
Building off the back of our FixMyStreet Platform we’re creating a single register that will gather together all of the currently listed ACVs — including those that were rejected or are currently going through the process of nomination. Just as FixMyStreet publishes its reports, these assets will be displayed on the map for anyone to view, share and discuss.
With the help of the DCLG we’ll work with local councils and provide them with support to list and manage ACVs in their area, as well as embed their own listings on their website. The service will provide help and guidance for organisations that are eligible to nominate an asset for consideration and we’ll standardise this submission process.
As the service develops, local community members will also be able to highlight assets they believe should be put forward for consideration, as well as add additional detail such as pictures and notes to registered ACVs on the site.
What we need help with
At this stage we’re looking for more collaborators who are already active in this space to come forward and get involved. We’re already in touch with CAMRA, Sport England, the Woodland Trust, and the Land Registry, but if you would like to offer some help or support please do get in touch.
We’re particularly keen to connect with Local Councils who are already actively making use of ACVs, so if you’re an officer responsible for managing the ACV process for your council we’d love to hear from you.
We know from Locality that there were at least 5,000 registered ACVs this time last year, but that list was already a little out of date and there will be more to add. Keeping everything up to date from the usual mix of web pages, spreadsheets and PDFs is going to make things challenging as well.
This is a particularly interesting extension of the FixMyStreet Platform and it’s a useful way for us to explore how to best extend the citizen engagement features of FixMyStreet beyond issue reporting and into celebrating what makes each local community unique and valuable.