During the course of Code The City 17: Make Aberdeen Better this weekend we made a startling discovery. It is easier to recycle your old fridge-freezer than to get data and content for re-use from Scottish public sector websites. As a consequence, innovating new solutions to common problems and helping make things easier for citizens is made immeasurably more difficult.
One of the event’s challenges posed was “How do we easily help citizens to find where to recycle item ‘x’ in the most convenient fashion. That was quickly broadened out to ‘dispose of an item” since not everything can be recycled – some might be better reused, and others treated as waste, if it can’t be reused or recycled. With limited kerbside collections, getting rid of domestic items mainly involves taking them somewhere – but where?
With climate change, and the environment on most people’s minds at the moment, and legislative and financial pressures on local authorities to put less to landfill, surely it is in everyone’s interest to make it work as well as it can.
To test how to help people to help themselves by giving advice and guidance, we came up with a list of 12 items to test this on – including a fridge, a phone charger, a glass bottle, and tetra pack carton. On the face of it this should be simple, and probably has been solved already.
The Github Repo
All of Code The City hack weekend projects are based on open data and open source code. We use Github to share that code – and any other digital artefacts created as part of the project. All of this one’s outputs can be found (and shared openly) here.
That was where we started: looking to see if the problem has already been solved. There is no point in reinventing the wheel.
We looked for two things – apps for mobile phones, and websites with appropriate guidance.
Aberdeen specific information?
Since we were at an event in Aberdeen we first looked at Aberdeen City Council’s website. What could we find out there?
Not much as it turned out – and certainly not anything useful in an easy-to-use fashion. On the front page there was an icon and group of suggested services for Bins and recycling; none of which were what we were looking for.
Typing recycling into the search box (and note we didn’t at this stage know if our hypothetical item could be recycled) returned the first 15 of 33 results. As shown below.
The results were a strangely unordered list – neither sorted alphabetically nor by obvious themes. So relevant items could be on page 3 of the results. Who wants to read policies if they are trying to dispose of a sofa? Why are two of (we later discovered) five recycling centres shown but three others not? Why would I as a citizen want to find out about trade waste when I just want to get rid of a dodgy phone charger?
Why is there a link to all recycling points (smaller facilities in supermarket carparks or such like, with limited acceptance of items), but apparently not to all centres which cover much more items? Actually there is a link ‘Find Your Nearest Recycling Centre’ (but not your nearest recycling point which are much more numerous). This takes you a map and tabular list of centres and what they accept. And it is easy to miss the search box between the two. No such facility exists for the recycling points.
Perhaps there is open data on the ACC Data portal that we could re-purpose – allowing us to build our own solution? Sadly not – the portal has had the same five data sets for almost two years, and every one of those has a broken link to the WMSes.
If we were in Dundee we could download and use freely their recycling centre data. But not in Aberdeen.
Apps to the rescue?
There are some apps and services that do most of what we are trying to do. For example iRecycle – Iphone and Android is a nice app for Android and iOS that would work were it not for US locations only.
We couldn’t find something for Scotland that worked as an App.
Other sources of information?
Since we drew a blank as far as both Aberdeen City Council and any useable apps, we widened our search.
Recycle For Scotland
The website Recycle For Scotland (RFS) is, on the face of it a useful means to identify what to do with a piece of domestic waste. Oddly, there appears not to be any link to it that we could find from any of the ACC recycling pages.
BUT …… it doesn’t work as well as it could and the content, and data behind it have no clear licence to permit reuse.
The Issues with RFS
Searching the site, or navigating by the menus, for Electrical Items results in a page that is headed “This content was archived on 13th August 2018” – hardly inspiring confidence. No alternative page appears to exist and this page is the one turned up in navigation on the site.
Searching for what to do with batteries in Aberdeen results in a list of shops at least one of which closed down about 18 months ago. Entering a search means entering your location manually – every time you search! This quickly becomes wearing.
While the air of neglect is strong, the site is at least useful compared to the ACC website. But it doesn’t do what we want. Perhaps we could re-use some of the content? No – there is no clear licence regarding reuse of the website’s content.
The site appears to be a rebadged version of Recycle Now, built for Zero Waste Scotland (ZWS). According to ZWS’s Terms and Conditions on their own site, and deeply ironically, you can’t (re)use any materials from that site.
ZWS are publicly funded by the Scottish Government and the European Regional Development Fund – all public money.
Public funding should equal open licences
We argue that any website operated by a government agency, or department, or NDPB, should automatically be licensed under the Open Government Licence (OGL). And any data behind that site should be licensed as Open Data.
The Scottish Government’s own website is fully licenced under OGL.
Changing the licensing of Recycle For Scotland website, making its code open source, and making its data open would have many benefits.
- its functionality could be improved on by anyone
- the data could be repurposed in new applications
- errors could be corrected by a larger group than a single company maintaining it.
Where did this leave us?
Having failed to identify an app that worked for Scotland, nor interactive guidance on the ACC website, we tried the patchy and, on the face of it, unreliable RFS site. We’d turned to the data and whether we could construct something useable from open data and repurposed, fixed, content over the weekend – this is a hack event after all.
But in this we were defeated – data is wrapped up in web pages: formatted for human readability, not reuse in new apps.
Websites which were set up to encourage re-use and recycling ironically prohibit that as far as their content and data is concerned, and deliberately stifle innovation.
Public funding from the City Council, the Scottish Government and the European Regional Development Fund is used to fund sites which you have paid but elements of which you cannot reuse yourself.
At a time of climate crisis, which the Scottish Government has announced is a priority action, it can’t be right that not only is it difficult to find ways to divert domestic items from landfill, but also that these Government-funded websites have deliberate measures in place to stop us innovating in order to make access to reuse and recycle easier!
Hopefully politicians, ministers and councillors will read this (please draw it to their attention) and wake up to the fact that Scotland deserves, and needs, better than this.
Only by having an Open Data by default policy for the whole of the Scottish Public Sector, and an open government licence on all websites can we fix these problems through innovation.
After all if the non-functioning Northern Ireland Assembly can come up with an open data strategy that commits the region to open data by default, why on earth can’t Scotland?
“Northern Ireland public sector data is open by default. Open by default is the first guiding principle that will facilitate and accelerate Open Data publication.”
[Edit – Added 12-Nov-2019]
If you are interested to read more about the poor state of Scottish Open Data you might be interested in this post I wrote in February 2019 which also contains links to other posts on the subject:
Sadly, not much has changed in the intervening nine months.