We help kids in regeneration areas. What’s one of them?

At CTC we work with ONE Codebase to deliver Young City Coders classes. These are after school activities to encourage young people to get into coding by trying Scratch, Python and other languages in a Coder Dojo like environment.

Inoapps generously gave us some funding to cover costs and donated old laptops (as did the James Hutton Institute) which we cleaned up and recycled into machines they could use.

All of which is great – and we have 20-25 kids each session starting to get into these coding languages.

The Challenge

But there is an issue – the bulk of our kids are overwhelmingly from west-end schools. And we have an aim to help kids in regeneration areas where opportunities are generally fewer.

So, that means identifying Aberdeen schools that fall in the regeneration areas and contacting the head teacher and having a discussion about what help they would like to see us provide. Simple?

No.

Search for regeneration areas

Starting with the basics – what are the regeneration areas of Aberdeen? According to Google, the Aberdeen City Council website doesn’t tell us. Certainly not in the top five pages of results (and yes, I did go down that far).

Google’s top answer is from the Evening Express article which says that there are five regeneration areas: Middlefield, Woodside, Tillydrone, Torry and Seaton. From what I have heard that sounds like it might be about right – but surely there is an official source of this.

Further searching turns up a page from Pinacl Solutions who won a contract from ACC to provide wifi in the Northern regeneration areas of “Northfield, Middlefield, Woodside and Tillydrone.” Which raises the question of whether Northfield is or isn’t a sixth regeneration area.

The Citizens Advice Bureau Aberdeen has an article on support services for regeneration areas of “Cummings Park, Middlefield, Northfield, Seaton, Tillydrone, Torry, Woodside and Powis.” That adds two more to our list.

Other sites report there being an “Aberdeen City Centre regeneration area.” Is that a ninth?

Having a definitive and authoritative page from ACC would help. Going straight to their site and using the site’s own search function should help. I search for “regeneration areas” and then just “regeneration.”

ACC results for regeneration areas
ACC results for regeneration areas

I get two results: “Union Street Conservation Area Regeneration Scheme” and “Buy Back Scheme”. The latter page has not a single mention of regeneration despite the site throwing up a positive result. The former appears to be all about the built environment. So it is probably not a ninth one in the sense that the others are. Who knows?

So what are the regeneration areas – and how can I find which schools fall within them?

Community Planning Aberdeen

Someone suggested that I try the Community Planning Aberdeen site’. Its not having a site search wasn’t very helpful but using Google to restrict only results from that domain threw up a mass of PDFs.

After wading through half a dozen of these I could find no list or definition of the regeneration areas of the city are. Amending the query to a specific “five regeneration areas” or “eight….” didn’t work.

Trying “seven regeneration areas” did return this document with a line: “SHMU supports residents in the seven regeneration areas of the city.” So, if that is correct then it appears there are seven. What they are – and which of the eight (or nine) we’ve found so far is not included – is still unknown.

Wards, neighbourhoods, districts, areas, school catchment areas

And – do they map onto council wards or are they exact matches for other defined areas – such as neighbourhoods?

It turns out that there are 13 council wards in the city. I had to manually count them from this page. I got there via Google as search the ACC site for Council Wards doesn’t get you there.

I seem to remember there were 37(?) city neighbourhoods identified at one time. To find them I had to know that there were 37 as searching for “aberdeen neighbourhoods’ wasn’t specific enough to return any meaningful list or useful page.

And until we find our what the regeneration areas are, and we can work out which primary and secondary schools fall in those areas, we can’t do very much. Which means that the kids who would benefit from code clubs most don’t get our help.

I though this would be easy!

At the very minimum I could have used a web page with a list of regeneration areas and some jpg maps to show where they are. That’s not exactly hard to provide. And I’d make sure that the SEO was done in a way that it performed well on Google (oh and I’d sort the site’s own search). But that would do at a pinch. Sticking at that would miss so many opportunities, though.

Better would be a set of Shape Files or geojson (ideally presented on the almost empty open data platform) with polygons that I could download and overlay on a background map.

That done I could download a set of school boundaries (they do exist here – yay) and overlay those and workout the intersections between the two. Does the school boundary overlap a regeneration area? Yes? If so, it is on our target list to help.

Incidentally what has happened to the ACC online mapping portal?  Not only does it not appear in any search results either, but all of the maps except the council boundary appear to have vanished, and there used to be dozens of them!

Lack of clarity helps no-one

A failure to publish information and data helps no-one. How can anyone know if their child’s school is in a regeneration area. How can a community group know if they are entitled to additional funding.

Without accurate boundary maps – and better still data – how can we match activities to physical areas (be they regeneration areas, wards, neighbourhoods, or catchment areas)?

How can we analyse investment, spending, attainment, street cleanliness, crime, poverty, number of planning applications, house values, RTAs per area if we can’t get the data?

For us this is a problem, but for the kids in the schools this is another opportunity denied.

Just as we highlighted in our previous post on recycling, the lack of open data is not an abstract problem. It deprives people of data and information and stifles opportunities for innovation. Our charity, and our many volunteers at events can do clever stuff with the data – build new services, apps, websites, and act as data intermediaries to help with data literacy.

Until there is a commitment nationally (and at a city level) to open data by default we will continue to highlight this as a failing by government.

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The header image for this page is for a map of secondary school boundaries from ACC Open Data, on an Open Street Map background.

 

Boundaries, not barriers

Note: This blogpost first appeared on codethecity.co.uk in January 2019 and has been archived here with a redirect from the original URL. 

I wrote some recent articles about the state of open data in Scotland. Those highlighted the poor current provision and set out some thoughts on how to improve the situation. This post is about a concrete example of the impact of government doing things poorly.

Ennui: a great spur to experimentation

As the Christmas ticked by I started to get restless. Rather than watch a third rerun of Elf, I decided I wanted to practice some new skills in mapping data: specifically how to make Choropleth Maps. Rather than slavishly follow some online tutorials and show unemployment per US state, I thought it would be more interesting to plot some data for Scotland’s 32 local authorities.

Where to get the council boundaries?

If you search Google for “boundary data Scottish Local Authorities”  you will be taken to this page on the data.gov.uk website. It is titled “Scottish Local Authority Areas”  and the description explains the background to local government boundaries in Scotland. The publisher of the data is the Scottish Government Spatial Data Infrastructure (SDI). Had I started on their home page, which is far from user-friendly, and filtered and searched, I would have eventually been taken back to the page on the data.gov.uk data portal.

The latter page offers a link to “Download via OS OpenData” which sounds encouraging.

Download via OS Open Data
Download via OS Open Data

This takes you to a page headed, alarmingly, “Order OS Open Data.” After some lengthy text (which warns that DVDs will take about 28 days to arrive but that downloads will normally arrive within an hour), there then follows a list of fifteen data sets to choose. The Boundary Line option looked most appropriate after reading descriptions.

This was described as being in a proprietary ERSI shapefile format, and being 754Mb of files, with another version in the also proprietary Mapinfo format. Importantly, there was no option for downloading data for Scotland only, which I wanted. In order to download it, I had to give some minimal details, and complete a captcha. On completion, I got the message, “Your email containing download links may take up to 2 hours to arrive.”

There was a very welcome message at the foot of the page: “OS OpenData products are free under the Open Government Licence.” This linked not to the usual National Archives definition, but to a page on the OS site itself with some extra, but non-onerous reminders.

Once the link arrived (actually within a few minutes) I then clicked to download the data as a Zip file. Thankfully, I have a reasonably fast connection, and within a few minutes I received and unzipped twelve sets of 4 files each, which now took up 1.13GB on my hard drive.

Partial directory listing of downloaded files
Partial directory listing of downloaded files

Two sets of files looked relevant: scotland_and_wales_region.shp and scotland_and_wales_const_region.shp. I couldn’t work out what the differences were in these, and it wasn’t clear why Wales data is also bundled with Scotland – but these looked useful.

Wrong data in the wrong format

My first challenge was that I didn’t want Shapefiles, but these were the only thing on offer, it appeared. The tutorials I was going to follow and adapt used a library called Folium, which called for data as GeoJson, which is a neutral, lightweight and human readable file format.

I needed to find a way to check the contents of the Shapefiles: were they even the ones I wanted? If so, then perhaps I could convert them in some way.

To check the shapefile contents, I settled on a library called GeoPandas. One after the other I loaded scotland_and_wales_region.shp and scotland_and_wales_const_region.shp. After viewing the data in tabular form, I could see that these are not what I was looking for.

So, I searched again on the Scottish Spatial Infrastructure and found this page. It has a Download link at the top right. I must have missed that.

SSI Download Link
SSI Download Link

But when you click on Download it  turns out to be a download of the metadata associated with the data, not the data files. Clicking Download link via OS Open Data, further down page, takes you back to the very same link, above.

I did further searching. It appeared that the Scottish Local Government Boundary Commission offered data for wards within councils but not the councils’ own boundaries themselves. For admin boundaries, there were links to OS’ Boundary Line site where I was confronted by same choices as earlier.

Eventually, through frustration I started to check the others of the twelve previously-downloaded Boundary Line data sets and found there was a shape file called “district_borough_unitary_region.shp” On inspection in GeoPandas it appeared that this was what I needed – despite Scottish Local Authorities being neither districts nor boroughs – except that it contained all local authority boundaries for the UK – some 380 (not just the 32 that I needed).

Converting the data

Having downloaded the data I then had to find a way to convert it from Shapefile to Geojson (adapting some code I had discovered on StackOverflow) then subset the data to throw away almost 350 of the 380 boundaries. This was a two stage process: use a conversion script to read in Shapefiles, process and spit out Geojson; write some code to read in the Geojson, covert it to a python dictionary, match elements against a list of Scottish LAs, then write the subset of boundaries back out as a geojson text file.

Code to convert shapefiles to geojson
Code to convert shapefiles to geojson

Using the Geojson to create a choropleth map

I’ll spare the details here, but I then spent many, many hours trying to get the Geojson which I had generated to work with the Folium library. Eventually it dawned on me that while the converted Geojson looked ok, in fact it was not correct. The conversion routine was not producing the correct Geojson.

Another source

Having returned to this about 10 days after my first attempts, and done more hunting around (surely someone else had tried to use Scottish LAs as geojson!) I discovered that Martin Crowley had republished on Github boundaries for UK Administrations as Geojson. This was something that had intended to do for myself later, once I had working conversions, since the OGL licence permits republishing with accreditation.

Had I had access to these two weeks ago, I could have used them. With the Scottish data downloaded as Geojson, producing a simple choropleth map as a test took less than ten minutes!

Choropleth map of Scottish Local Authorities
Choropleth map of Scottish Local Authorities

While there is some tidying to do on the scale of the key, and the shading, the general principle works very well. I will share the code for this in a future post.

Some questions

There is something decidedly user-unfriendly about the SDI approach which is reflective of the Scottish public sector at large when it comes to open data. This raises some specific, and some general questions.

  1. Why can’t the Scottish Government’s SDI team publish data themselves, as the OGL facilitates, rather than have a reliance on OS publishing?
  2. Why are boundary data, and by the looks of it other geographic data, published as ESRI GIS shapefiles or Mapinfo formats rather than the generally more-useable, and much-smaller, GeoJson format?
  3. Why can’t we have Scottish (and English, and Welsh) authority boundaries as individual downloads, rather than bundled as UK-level data, forcing the developer to download unnecessary files? I ended up with 1.13GB (and 48 files) of data instead of a single 8.1MB Scottish geojson file.
  4. What engagement with the wider data science / open community have SDI team done to establish how their data could be useful, useable and used?
  5. How do we, as the broader Open Data community share or signpost resources? Is it all down to government? Should we actively and routinely push things to Google Dataset Search? Had there been a place for me to look, then I would have found the GitHub repo of council boundaries in minutes, and been done in time to see the second half of Elf!

And finally

I am always up for a conversation about how we make open data work as it should in Scotland. If you want to make the right things happen, and need advice, or guidance, for your organisation, business or community, then we can help you. Please get in touch. You can find me here or here or fill in this contact form and we will respond promptly.

So, how did CTC6 – The History Jam go?

Intro

On 19th and 20th March we found ourselves back at Aberdeen Uni with 35 or so eager hackers looking to bring to life a 3D Virtual Reality historic model of Aberdeen city centre using new open data. So how did it go?

This time we were more prescriptive than at any previous Code The City event. In the run up to the weekend we’d identified several sub-team roles.

  • Locating, identifying and curating historic content
  • Transcribing, formatting and creating valid open data
  • Building the 3D model, fixing and importing images and
  • Integrating and visualising the new data in the model.
Andrew Gives us an Open Data Briefing
Andrew Gives us an Open Data Briefing

After some breakfast, an intro and a quick tutorial on Open Data, delivered by Andrew Sage, we got stuck in to the work in teams.

Old Books into Open Data

We were lucky to have a bunch (or should be a shelf-ful) of city librarians, an archivist and a gaggle of other volunteers working on sourcing and transcribing data into some templates we’d set up in Google Sheets.

Given that we’d been given scanned photos of all the shop frontages of Union Street, starting in 1937, of which more below, we settled on that as the main period to work from.

The Transcribers
The Transcribers

The librarians and helpers quickly got stuck into transcribing the records they’d identified – particularly the 1937-38 Post Office Directory of Aberdeen. If my arithmetic is correct they completely captured the details of 1100+ business in the area around Union Street.

At present these are sitting in a Google Spreadsheet – and we will be working out with the librarians how we present this as well structured, licensed Open Data. It is also a work in progress. So there are decisions to be made – do we complete the transcription of the whole of Aberdeen – or do we move onto another year? e.g. 1953 which is when we have the next set of shopfront photos.

We have a plan
We have a plan

Music, pictures and sound

At the same time as this transcription was ongoing, we had someone sourcing and capturing music such might have been around in 1937, and sounds that you might have heard on the street – including various tram sounds – which could be imported into the model.

Sounds of the city
Sounds of the city

And three of us did some work on beginning an open list of gigs for Aberdeen since the city had both the Capitol Theatre (Queen, AC/DC, Hawkwind) and the Music Hall (Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, Elton John) on Union Street. This currently stands at 735 gigs and growing. Again, we need to figure out when to make it live and how.

The 3D Model

At CTC5 back in November 2015, Andrew Sage had started to build a 3D model of the city centre in Unity. That relied heavily on manually creating the buildings. Andrew’s idea for CTC6 was to use Open Streetmap data as a base for the model, and to use some scripting to pull the building’s footprints into the model.

Oculus Rift Headset and a 1937 Post Office Directory
Oculus Rift Headset and a 1937 Post Office Directory

This proved to be more challenging than expected. Steven Milne has written a great post on his site. I suggest that you read that then come back to this article.

As you’ve hopefully just read, Steve has identified the challenge of using Open Streetmap data for a project such as this: the data just isn’t complete enough or accurate enough to be the sole source of the data.

While we could update data – and push it back to OSM, that isn’t necessarily the best use of time at a workshop such as this.

An alternative

There is an alternative to some of that. All 32 local authorities in Scotland maintain a gazetteer of all properties in their area. These are highly accurate, constantly-update, and have Unique Property Reference Numbers (UPRNs) and geo-ordinates for all buildings. This data (if it was open) would make projects such as this so much easier. While we would still need building shapes to be created in the 3D model, we would have accurate geo-location of all addresses, and so could tie the transcribed data to the 3d map very easily.

By using UPRNs as the master data across each transcribed year’s data we could match the change in use of individual buildings through time much more easily.  There is a real need to get the data released by authorities as open data, or at least with a licence allowing generous re-use of the data. ODI Aberdeen are exploring this with Aberdeen City Council and the Scottish Government

Fixing photos

We were given by the city’s Planning Service, scans of photos of shopfronts of Union Street from a number of decades from 1937, 1953 and on to the present. Generally the photos are very good but there are issues: we have seams between photos which run down the centre of buildings. We have binding tape showing through etc.

A split building on Castle Street.
A split building on Castle Street.

These issues are not so very difficult to fix – but they do need someone with competence in Photoshop, some standard guidance, and workflow to follow.

We started fixing some photos so that they could provide the textures for the building of Union Street in the model. But given the problems we were having with model, and a lack of dedicated Photoshop resource we parked this for now.

Next steps

Taking this project forward, while still posing some challenges, is far from impossible. We’ve shown that the data for the entire city centre for any year can be crowd-transcribed in just 36 hours. But there are some decisions to be made.

Picking up on the points above, these can be broken down as follows.

Historical Data

  • Licensing model to be agreed
  • Publishing platform to be identified
  • Do we widen geo-graphically (across the city as a whole) or temporally (same area different years)
  • Creating volunteer transcribing teams, with guidance, supervision and perhaps a physical space to carry out the work.
  • Identify new data sources (e.g. the Archives were able to offer valuation roll data for the same period – would these add extra data for buildings, addresses, businesses?)
  • Set up a means for the general public to get involved – gamifying the transcription process, perhaps?

Photos

  • Similar to the data above.
  • We need clear CC licences to be generated for the pictures
  • Crowdsource the fixing of the photos
  • Create workflow, identify places for the pictures to be stored
  • Look at how we gamify or induce skilled Photoshop users to get involved
  • Set up a repository of republished, fixed pictures, licensed for reuse, with proper addressing system and naming  – so that individual pictures can be tied to the map and data sources

The 3D Model

  • Build the model
  • Extend the coverage (geographically and through time)
  • Establish how best to display the transcribed data – and to allow someone in the 3D environment to move forward and back in time.
  • Look at how we can import other data such as a forthcoming 3D scan of the city centre to shortcut some development work
  • Look at how we can reuse the data in other formats and platforms (such as Minecraft) with minimum rework.
  • Speed up the 3D modelling by identifying funding streams that could be used to progress this more quickly. If you have suggestions please let us know as a comment below.

Taking all of this forward is quite an undertaking, but it is also achievable if we break the work down into streams and work on those. Some aspects would benefit from CTC’s involvement – but some could be done without us. So, libraries could use the experience gained here to set up transcribing teams of volunteers – and be creating proper open data with real re-use value. That data could then easily be used by anyone who wants to reuse it – e.g. to create a city centre mobile app which allows you to see any premises on Union Street, call up photos from different periods, find out which businesses operated there etc

As the model takes shape and we experiment with how we present the data we can hopefully get more attention and interest (and funding?) to support its development. It would be good to get some students on placements working on some aspects of this too.

Aberdeen City Council is working with the Scottish Cities Alliance to replace and improve the Open Data platforms for all seven Scottish cities later this year – and that will provide a robust means of presenting and storing all this open data once in place but in the mean time we will need to find some temporary alternatives (perhaps on Github ) until we are ready.

We welcome your input on this – how could you or your organisation help, what is your interest, how could you assist with taking this forward? Please leave comments below.

Code The City 6 – The History Jam was funded by Aberdeen City Council’s Libraries service and generously supported by Eventifier who provided us with free use of their Social Media platform and its LiveWall for the sixth consecutive time!.

History Jam – #CTC6

The History Jam (or Code The City #6 if you are counting) will take place on 19-20 March 2016 at Aberdeen University. You can get one of the remaining tickets here.

As an participant, you’ll be bringing history to life, creating a 3D virtual reality map of a square mile of Aberdeen’s city centre. You’ll be gathering data from a variety of historical sources, transcribing that and creating new open data. You’ll import that into the the 3D model.
And there will also be the opportunity to re-use that data in imaginative new ways. So, if you are a MineCraft fan, why not use the data to start building Minecraft Aberdeen.
This is not one of our usual hacks, whatever that is! This time around instead of you proposing problems to be worked on, we’ve set the agenda, we’ll help form the teams, and provide you with more guidance and support.
If you come along you’ll learn open data skills. And you’ll get a year’s free membership of the Open Data Institute!

Saturday’s Running Order

09:00 Arrive in time for fruit juices, coffee, pastries, or a rowie.

09:30 Introduction to the day
09:45 Briefing of teams and, if you are new to Open Data, a quick training session

10:15 Split into three streams:

  • Sourcing and curation of data, and structuring capture mechanisms
  • Transcribing,  cleaning, and  publishing open data
  • Creating the 3D map, importing and visualising the data

CTC-6-Flow1

Throughout the day we’ll have feedback sessions, presenting back to the room on progress. We’ll write blog posts, create videos, photograph progress.

13:00 Lunch (the best sandwiches in Aberdeen)

More workstream sessions with feedback and questions.

17:30 (or so) Pizza and a drink

We’ll wind up about 8pm or so if you can stay until then

Sunday’s Agenda

09:30 arrive for breakfast

10:00 kick off

Morning sessions

12:30 Lunch

Afternoon sessions

16:00 Show and Tell sessions – demonstrate to the room, and a wider audience, and preserve for posterity what you’ve produced in less than 36 hours. You’ll be amazed!