Free Our Data: the blog

A Guardian Technology campaign for free public access to data about the UK and its citizens

Travel maps of Britain… measured by time, not distance

The Mysociety team (they brought you, the site that shows what your MP has been up to) has done another mashup, this time showing how long it takes to travel to various parts of the country by train or car, and generated maps with “isochrones” – lines of the same (travel) time – from them.

It’s fascinating stuff – London turns out to be organised (accidentally) along a NE-SW axis, “a result of good rail links to Surbiton and Twickenham”. There’s plenty more, in great detail. Of course, it doesn’t help on those “last mile” calculations: getting to a train station and getting to your actual destination on a journey are two different things.

Among the credits, you’ll find this:

This work was funded by the Department for Transport, who also made it possible for us to use Ordnance Survey maps and data through their licence; without this assistance we would have had to pay expensive fees to use the underlying mapping data or to produce maps with no landmarks, which would be almost incomprehensible…

Although the journey planning services and software we used were publicly accessibly, almost none of the other data is available unless you pay for it, or your work falls under an existing licencing agreement. So while we set out to demonstrate how easily we could make travel-time maps from public data, very little of this work could be cheaply reproduced or extended without assistance from a government department.

That’s unfortunate, because it means that innovative work by outsiders in this area can only go ahead if it’s explicitly sponsored by government. If all the data we’ve used had been available for free, somebody else might well have done what we’ve done years ago, with no cost to the taxpayer. We’d love it if others extend the work that we’ve done, but realistically there aren’t very many people in a position to do this cheaply.

It sounds to us very like a call to Free Our Data – then we could all benefit from this, rather than having to rely what the Mysociety people (trailblazers that they are) have been able to produce. Imagine if you could get data feeds for free for journeys between any two places in the UK.. it would make planning a commute a lot easier, for a start.

(This post also sent to the Guardian’s Technology blog.)

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