Dedicated mappers are using open data to create a new way of looking at landmarks and services in the West Midlands – and it often starts just by walking the streets with a notepad and pen.
Achievements so far include mapping cycle and public transport routes, plotting councils’ winter gritting routes, and showing where the region’s listed buildings are.
They work from a mixture of open data, data given to them by local authorities, and their own efforts – getting out and about and noting what’s around them.
“You can map anything you see,” volunteer Brian Prangle explains. “My hobby is listed buildings, but people map bus routes, electricity pylons, the solar panels on people’s roofs – whatever they’re interested in.
“How you do it depends how tech-savvy you are. You can use the basic notepad and paper method, use GPS, smartphones with apps, photos, and some people use head cams to take videos to study later.”
All this data gets added to OpenStreetMap, which is free for all to use, in contrast to Ordnance Survey’s copyrighted maps of the UK. But Prangle says the volunteer mappers can be more nimble and versatile than their official counterparts.
“Ordnance Survey would never collect pharmacy opening times, or how much a car park costs to use,” he explains. “And we can note a change on the ground and update the map in 10 minutes – it takes them four or five months. We don’t want to replace Ordnance Survey.”
Much of the mappers’ work has been about collecting fresh data – but getting existing data out of local authorities and other bodies to expand their work has proved problematic.
“Where there is open data, it’s of varying quality - 90 to 95 per cent of it is inaccurate,” he says. “So consequently, a lot of local authorities don’t want to have us what there’ve got, as they haven’t got the money to make it 100% accurate.
“But we can go and check it for them.”
Even when the data’s out there, it can come in tricky-to-use formats.
“We found footpath info that wasn’t in electronic formats. Or if you want to check street names, you have to look in the gazetteer and write down notes as you can’t take photographs – it’s madness,” he says.
Prangle finds some authorities are more willing to work with mappers than others. He once went to track down a listed fire station, only to find a less appealing 1960s building in its place.
“The grid references had been transposed,” he recalls. “English Heritage were very nice about it, and thanked us, but others just ignore us.”
The availability of data is “patchy”, Prangle says, adding that mappers find it easier to get information via Freedom of Information Act requests from one authority in the region as “nobody can get anywhere” asking for data.
But others come in for praise. “Nottingham has a really good open data site, and Warwickshire gave us aerial imagery they’d commissioned for the elections – it was cheaper for them to do than use Google Maps,” he says.
The mappers have also had private sector help. The firm redeveloping the Longbridge car plant, St Modwen, has also helped Mappa Mercia by letting the mappers study its two-square mile new town for themselves.
“They see we can update addresses faster than anyone else,” he adds.
“It’s a model for every developer, and we’d like to do more of it. But unless you get funding, you can’t take it forward in a big way.”
So what should local authorities do if they want to work with OpenStreetMap volunteers?
“Try it – don’t be fearful, you’ll get a lot back from the community,” Prangle says.
“You need to set up a process, but publishing data would help – especially if you give us access to APIs so we always have up-to-date data.
“Embrace it – it gets citizens involved as you get less money to do things with.”
Find out more about Mappa Mercia by visiting its website.
Birmingham Bus by Miroslav Petrasko, used under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.