Highways may look like the perfect area for open data initiatives. There is lots of data about highways assets; there is public demand for new services, such as websites or apps through which they can report potholes; and councils have incentives to get involved.
As Teresa Jolly, the leader of a session on highways pointed out, councils need to start making better use of their data, because people are saying:
We have all these new demands on us, and we have no money. How can we start talking to our communities about meeting their real needs without breaking the bank.
However, the session discovered that nothing is ever quite that easy. In fact, highways are also a perfect example of why open data initiatives can be hard to deliver.
From streetlights to cycle racks
Expert Aileen Heal explained that highways assets are very varied. They can be everything from a road, as a line on a map, to a streetlight. “There is a here is a debate about where to draw the line: is a cycle rack an asset?” she said. For some groups this is very important. “For example, for the accessibility agenda, it is very important to know where something like a barrier is, or a dimpled pavement.”
Providing this kind of data – or linking in other data sets where it is missing – is straightforward, and mapping it presents its own challenges. However, the session spent a lot of time discussing even more basic problems. For a start, the national and local road network is managed differently.
And while central government is trying to move towards one way of collecting and representing information about major roads, there are 153 councils looking after B roads who all do things differently. Even worse, they use one or more of five major companies to survey roads and undertake roadwork, and they all have different IT systems.
This makes it difficult to, say, create a pothole reporting tool, because: “agreeing that ‘this’ is how problems come in [to a council] and ‘this’ is how they get picked up [to be dealt with] is an issue,” Aileen said. “Then the councils will use lots of contractors, and they will need to pick up and feedback into one or more of these systems. So it’s quite hard.”
Martin Howitt from ODI Devon suggested some heads needed knocking together. “It sounds like there’s a massive computational job to do here, but none of the vendors want to do it,” he suggested. But Aileen said that: to be fair, each of the give main contractors had :invested a lot of money in their systems and genuinely believe theirs is the best, so there are some real barriers to change.”
Suggesting some standards
This triggered a debate about standards. Simon Redding from Open Street Map asked how standardised the different data sets used by the different parties were “because it feels like a real problem? In Open Street Map, there will be a definition of a road or whatever.” Aileen acknowledged that when it came to the government, councils and contractors “there just isn’t.”
Those attending the session naturally felt this was very familiar territory. “Every session at OD Camp comes across this problem of standards,” another participant pointed out. Martin: said the issue was particularly well recognised with regards to highways, but nobody had yet found a solution. “The temptation is to say there are lots of standards, so need a new, master one. I hate to admit it as a local govey, but perhaps that’s not the solution.”
He added that there were some other, practical problems. For instance, he said, when the idea of building a pothole reporting tool had come up in Bristol, “people said that if we made it easy for people to report potholes, we would be sued for not filling them.”
Aileen argued: “But there is a statutory requirement to go and fill potholes in a certain time, so if it’s not happening they should be sued.” Martin didn’t disagree, but noted that “for councils, being told where the potholes are is a cost.” Aileen responded that “if they know where they are, they don’t have to survey”; which Martin acknowledged was true.
Overall, Teresa argued that the way to cut through these various impasses might be to recognise that roads were important natural infrastructure, and there would be an economic benefit to make it easier to maintain them and for people to move around. “We have to work with the various parties, so they see the value does not lie in their data, but in what they can do with it,” she argued.