The Government announcement that Ordnance Survey map data will be freely available online from 2010 attracted limited media attention. The decision, coming just a few months after the launch of new crime maps, (http://maps.police.uk/) could help us better understand statistics about crime, health and education by for example, local authority or electoral boundary.
The decision comes alongside major developments in the field of online location based information and services over recent years. Google have been among the most pioneering in this area. They found that certain internet search terms are good indicators of flu activity. They subsequently developed Google Flu Trends which attempts to estimate flu activity and have argued that GoogleFlu has been quicker than the American Government in predicting flu trends.
From www.upmystreet.co.uk and www.homecheck.co.uk through to www.neighbourhood.statistics.gov.uk, we are seeing the freeing of data in a form which is much more user friendly. Users of new mobile phones such as the iphone will have seen companies increasingly using location based applications to advertise and target users who may be near to a specific location.
We shouldn’t be too complacent about this data. There remain some significant barriers to growth of certain location based services. The Royal Mail control over the Postcode Address File is likely to limit innovation for example.
But the growing amount of data which is available may make life easier for social scientists and researchers. And more importantly, it could open up data in a form which is much better understood by all. It will increase the potential for new public and private services and is likely to reveal evidence which could help policy makers focus resources. For example, what if better location based information revealed that rather than a universal (means tested) approach to tackling fuel poverty, an approach which targeted specific streets could deliver better returns on investment?
Yet policy makers have been much slower than the public in evaluating the impact of location based services. And the availability of all this data into the public domain has its own downside. There are very real fears about privacy for example. There is also the worry, highlighted in research funded by Joseph Rowntree Foundation in 2005 (http://www.jrf.org.uk/publications/internet-based-neighbourhood-information-systems-and-their-consequences) – that such public data could actually damage the prospects of regeneration. People are unlikely to want to choose to move to areas of, say, high crime or low life expectancy.
And in a world where income, class and age is a major predictor of internet use (six in ten over 65s have never used the internet) we could see funds and activities being diverted towards the internet literate?. Innovative work by organisations such as My Society including www.Fixmystreet.com also highlight this potential problem.
Fixmystreet.com allows individuals to report issues of concern (e.g. vandalism; dumped cars etc) and send them directly through to a local authority. It provides a fantastic service for tackling a significant social problem. But what if the only people who contribute are the internet literate?. Are local authorities finding themselves forced to spend more time and effort responding to the complaints of the more vocal and empowered rather than where they thought the need was highest?
There aren’t easy answers to these concerns. Society as a whole is likely to benefit from access to this growth in information in a usable way. And the solution is unlikely to be to shut off access. A better approach will be to empower all to have access. Policy makers do, however, need to catch-up with the technology or the best laid plans for neigbourhood improvement are likely to fail.