We’re starting the new year in the best way possible — with a new project that we’re really excited to get our teeth into.
Just before we all went off for the Christmas holidays, we learned that mySociety had won the contract to work on the Discovery and Alpha phases of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG)’s Central Register of Planning Permissions. To put it simply, this is the first couple of steps towards an eventual plan to aggregate and share, as Open Data, information on residential planning applications from councils across England.
Those who have followed mySociety for some time may remember that we have some experience in this area: we’ve previously worked around planning permissions with authorities in Barnet and Hampshire. More widely, many of our projects involve taking data from a range of different sources, tidying it up and putting it out into the world as consistent, structured Open Data that anyone can use. The most ambitious of these is EveryPolitician; the most recent is Keep It In The Community, and in both cases we suspect the issues — data in a variety of different formats and of widely differing qualities, being stored in many different places — will be broadly the same when it comes to planning permissions.
But we don’t know exactly that for sure, and neither does MHCLG, which is why they’re very sensibly getting us to kick off with this period of research, testing and trying out proofs of concept. With work that will involve our developers, design team, consultation with experts in the field and collaboration with MHCLG, we’re right in our happy place.
Best of all, the project ticks a lot of mySociety boxes. The eventual Open Data set that should come out of all this will:
- Help central government utilise digital to best effect: once this dataset exists, they’ll be able to develop tools that support the planning system and housing markets
- Aid local authorities in keeping consistent and useful data on their own planning applications, allowing them to analyse trends and plan wisely for the future
- Benefit the building industry as well as local residents as they have access to information on which applications have previously succeeded or failed in their own areas
- Be open to developers, who — as history tends to show — may use it create useful third party tools beyond the imagination of government itself.
This project is one of a number of pieces of work we’ll be doing with central and local government this year. With all of these, we’re committing to working in the open, so expect plenty of updates along the way.
If you’ve got a problem with your planning applications, we’ve got a little something for you…
Back in September, we wrote about our project with Hampshire Hub to build a prototype, open source web application that would help members of the public find out more about planning applications in their area:
The planning process can be baffling if you’re new to it and this tool aims to help make it easier to understand. We’ll be helping people answer some of the most common questions they have about planning applications: What applications are happening near me? What decisions have been made in the past on applications like mine? How likely is it that my application will be dealt with on time?
The site helps people browse planning application data by location — whether a postcode or a street address — and by type — whether it’s an extension, a loft conversion, or a major development like a retail park or commercial warehouse.
That project can now be seen at http://openplanning.hampshirehub.net/: go and have a poke around!
How it works
OpenPlanning displays planning applications clearly on a map. Users can browse their local area and learn more about how to complete their own request by looking at the success or failure of what has gone before.
This benefits everyone, from residents who are less likely to have their applications turned down, to the council who will find themselves dealing with higher-quality submissions.
By aggregating planning application details from multiple councils, the site allows users to browse irrespective of administrative boundaries or the authority in charge. After all, neither of those considerations are very high on the list of the resident’s priorities.
There’s nothing new about putting planning applications online, of course: they can already be browsed and submitted in many places across the web. This project isn’t hoping to replace those tools, but to complement them, providing links to existing data sources where possible, all accessible via a much more user-friendly interface.
We know many councils and residents struggle with planning applications on a daily basis, and we hope that OpenPlanning will provide the first step towards making the whole process easier for all parties.
The future for OpenPlanning
OpenPlanning is the first iteration of a new product. At this early stage, we haven’t included a facility to submit a planning application – that’s something we could slot in cost-effectively at a later phase though, and of course we’d be happy to hear from any councils who would be interested in adopting that approach.
The code is based on Open Australia Foundation’s PlanningAlerts platform, which means it’s already been tried and tested by a wide community down under. It’s still under active development and, thanks to the joys of Open Source code, we’ll be able to contribute improvements back to the original codebase too.
We’ve really enjoyed working with Hampshire Hub: a forward-thinking partnership of councils and other public organisations, led by Hampshire County Council, which aims to provide useful open data for the county. Hampshire understands the benefits, both direct and indirect, of open source tools and open data.
Now we’re seeking local councils who are struggling with the quality of planning applications, perhaps processing large volumes of applications that are not granted. If that sounds like you then please get in touch to speak to mySociety Services about what OpenPlanning can do for you.
Not many people realise that we fund a proportion of our charitable work by carrying our commercial development and consultancy work for a wide range of clients.
Last year, we scoped, developed and delivered a real variety of digital tools and projects. Some of the projects were surprising. Some of them made us gnash our teeth, a bit, as we grappled with new problems. But all of them (and call us geeks if you like) got us very excited.
Here are just twelve of our personal high points from last year. If you have a project that you think we might be able to help you with in 2015, we’d love to hear from you!
1. We Changed the Way in Which Parliament Does Digital
This time last year, a small team from mySociety was poring over analytics, interview content and assorted evidence from Parliament projects dating back last 2-3 years, to help us put together a simple set of recommendations to conclude our review.
11 months later, Parliament have announced their first Head of Digital, fulfilling one of our key recommendations.
2. We helped the MAS and the FCA protect financial consumers
We built the Money Advice Service’s (MAS) first responsive web application, the Car Cost Calculator.
This tool takes one simple thing you know (the car you wish to buy) and tells you roughly how much it’ll cost to run that car against any others you might be interested in. It has been one of MAS’ most successful online tools in terms of traffic and conversion.
We also built the Financial Conduct Authority’s Scam Smart tool, aiming to prevent financial scams.
This tool helps users considering a financial investment to check a potential investment. Users enter information about the type of investment, how they heard about it and the details of the company offering it to them and get back tailored guidance and suggested next steps to help them ensure the investment is bona fide.
3. We Gave Power to the People of Panama (soon)
Working with the The National Authority for Transparency & Access to Information (ANTAI) and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO), we set up our first government-backed instance of our Freedom of Information platform, Alaveteli, in Panama.
This project will ensure that Panama’s FOI legislation is promoted and used, but it will also shine a light on ANTAI, who are responsible for ensuring ministries and organisations publish their information, and handling case appeals.
4. We Mapped All the Public Services in Wales
After we extended the Mapumental API to produce data output suitable for GIS (geographical information systems), the Welsh Government were able to map public services in Wales for their Index of Multiple Deprivation calculations.
Over the course of the year they have calculated travel times for over seventy thousand points of interest.
5. We Launched a New Organisation in Four Weeks
Simply Secure approached us in dire need of a brand, an identity and a website to accompany the launch of their new organisation to help the world build user-friendly security tools and technologies.
Cue four weeks of very intense work for mySociety’s designer, supported by members of the commercial team. And we did it.
6. We Printed Stuff BIG (and found people jobs)
Xerox will be using these with the DWP to help job seekers find work that is within reach by public transport. As a byproduct, Mapumental now handles high-fidelity print based outputs: get in touch if that is of interest.
7. We Opened Up Planning Applications
With Hampshire County Council we had the opportunity to build a new application to help assist members of the public and business better understand what was happening around them. For us, it was also the first application in which we worked closely with a provider of a linked data store, in this case Swirrl.
When Open Planning goes live, it will look to help improve social engagement and the economy of Hampshire through better understanding and transparency of planning data.
8. We Proved (Again) That FixMyStreet Isn’t All About Potholes
We launched Collideoscope on October the 7th with our first sponsor—Barts Charity, with the aim of generating data both on incidents involving cycles, and near misses.
9. We Helped Launch a Film
We built a tool for the British Museum, to go alongside the general release of Vikings Live. The Norse Names project brought a sense of context and personalisation to a dataset gathered by the University of Nottingham.
10. We Made Data More Exciting
This year, they asked us to build something similar for bus users. We’re entering the final week of development now, and the finished product should be launched in March.
The main aim of this site? To take data that could be considered pretty dry, and make it a lot more engaging.
11. We Fixed Yet More Potholes
That means that residents of those places can now make their reports direct from their council’s website, or via FixMyStreet, and either way they’ll have all the benefits of FixMyStreet’s smooth report-making interface.
12. We Showed Parliament the Way
And so, we end where we began. While Parliament were busy interviewing candidates for their new ‘Head of Digital’ position, we were commissioned to demonstrate what Hansard might look like were a platform like SayIt used instead of the largely print-based publishing mechanisms used today.
The result was shared internally. While SayIt may not be the end solution for Parliament, it’s great to have had some input into what that solution might be.
And in 2015…?
Got a project that you’d like us to be involved in?
Every day, thousands of planning applications are submitted to local councils around the country by people applying to demolish a garage, erect a fence or convert a loft. More often than not these applications disappear into proprietary systems that, despite being publicly available, make it hard for members of the public to find out what’s going on in their area.
Last week, we kicked off the first sprint of an exciting new piece of work with the Hampshire Hub Partnership to build a prototype, open source web application to help members of the public find out more about planning applications in their area.
We jumped at the chance to work on this for a number of reasons.
Serving the needs of the public
Firstly, it has the needs of the general public as its focus. The planning process can be baffling if you’re new to it and this tool aims to help make it easier to understand. We’ll be helping people answer some of the most common questions they have about planning applications: What applications are happening near me? What decisions have been made in the past on applications like mine? How likely is it that my application will be dealt with on time?
A wireframe illustrating the potential functionality of the search results page
The site will help people browse planning application data by location — whether a postcode or a street address — and by type — whether it’s an extension, a loft conversion, or a major development like a retail park or commercial warehouse.
Built on Open Data
Secondly, it’s being made possible by the release of open data from local councils, once Ordnance Survey has granted the necessary exemption for locations derived from their data. Many of our projects rely on organisations publishing open data, so it’s great to have the chance to help demonstrate the value of releasing this kind of data openly.
The Hampshire Hub team has already spent a lot of time working with the LGA, DCLG and LeGSB to define a schema for how planning application data should be published. They’ve collaborated with local authorities, in particular Rushmoor Borough Council, to gather planning application data. And they’ve worked with Swirrl to set up an open data platform to collect all of this together, publish it openly and give us and others access to it.
Reuse, don’t rebuild
And finally, rather than build something from scratch, we’ll be using the fabulous PlanningAlerts.org.au open source codebase as a starting point. Planning Alerts is a piece of software built in Ruby on Rails by our friends down under at Open Australia. It gives us a lot of the functionality that we need for free. We plan in time to repay them for their kindness by submitting the features we develop back into their codebase (if they want them, of course).
We’ll also be using a customised version of our administrative boundaries service http://mapit.mysociety.org to store and query the geographical boundaries of different planning authorities in Hampshire (including National Park boundaries from Natural England as well as local council boundaries.)
We’ve just started our second sprint of work atop the Open Australia codebase, building the search functionality we need to help people find applications by location and category. We’re looking forward to seeing the tool grow, get into the hands of users and fill up with data.