With the 2016 Future Highways conference being hosted at Innovation Birmingham. and supported by several Open Data Institute Nodes including Birmingham and Devon, I was curious to explore the thoughts of the open data community on local highways.
This weekend’s Open Data Camp in Bristol seemed the ideal opportunity, where nearly 100 open data supporters from public, private and third sector organisations met to share ideas, perspectives and experiences in the popular unconference style.
After proposing this session on the Open Data Camp blog, and a 30 second (ish!) pitch this morning, around 20 of us had a very informed discussion this afternoon, captured brilliantly by Drawnalism in both pictures and words.
Talking local highways open data
There were no representatives from the highways sector present, but this didn’t deter from the depth of knowledge in the discussion. Some had direct experience of working with highways asset management software (Confirm, Exor, Symology, WDM, Yotta), others from local government departments (like IT) or other open data activities like OpenStreetMap who interact with local highways teams, and other with experience in the rail sector, as well of course all of us as citizens and road users.
Very quickly, we were able to pick on on the key threads/challenges that I hear being discussed in the technical and engineering teams within local highways. Albeit, the terminology used might be different, but to me its clear that the highways engineering and open data worlds are more aligned in their core understanding than many might initially assume.
Open data can help local highways, but we do need to focus on the economic benefits of doing so, rather than the demand for evidencing transparency. As I learnt in a recent Open Data in a Day training session, the Open Data Institute are now looking to identify and share the economic benefits of open data, a target which is less affected by changes in political motivation than the initial need for transparency.
The highways public asset
Highways asset data is a public asset, but it is currently not managed as such. With no consistent standards across local highways authorities for capturing, storing and analysing asset condition data, the sector is reliant on the capabilities of the big five highways asset management data / software providers. As each are invested in their own software products, we need to be raising the value of creating and maintaining a licensed open dataset of highways assets to drive creation of standards.
Another really useful aspect raised in today’s discussion was the fact that much traditional highways data is not geo-located, but rather is defined by chainage position. This is one of several challenges the local highways sector shares with the rail sector, as I learnt in a discussion with the Permanent Way Institution a few weeks ago.
Mass capture of highways condition data
With the accessibility and use of mobile phones and other handheld sensing devices being able to capture a whole host of road condition / roughness related data, we need to be exploring how this can be co-ordinated, accessed and augmented by/with condition data captured by annual surveys. The Roadee project by Leeds City Council / Leeds Beckett University is an example of an open data project that captured road roughness data from mobile phones stored in authority vehicles over a defined period.
To prioritise user needs, and engage others in the process, we need to be thinking much more holistically about what local highways data is captured, how it is captured, stored, categorised and accessed. Very little local highways data currently meets the definition of open data – data that anyone can access, use and share. Devon County Council are I believe one of the first local authorities to be publishing highways asset condition data as open data, but there is a long way to go.
Removing licensing and reuse restrictions
Many of the challenges surround licensing restrictions / considerations with Ordnance Survey. I learnt today that the successful application to exempt Public Rights of Way (PROW) data from the Ordnance Survey licensing, many councils have experience a positive, win-win benefit from providing these datasets as open data.
Rise to the opportunities, rather than fearing the change
Of course this will be a challenge to the current highways data surveying, software and licensing monopoly, but we must evolve beyond finding value (and charging for services) in collecting and accessing data. Instead, we have a fantastic opportunity to create new skills and services that interpret and assess this data to give greater insights into users needs and priorities, and engaging them in the decision-making process.