The Metropolitan Police Authority has released a beta version of their new Crime Mapping application, showing the generalised level of crime (burglary, robbery and vehicle) for Lower-level Super Output Areas (LSOAs). The application uses generalised boundaries of LSOAs , and use a clear classification of the level of crime. Interestingly, the Show Us a Better Way website includes several suggestions for crime mapping – so there is an ongoing public interest.

This is not surprising, based on my own experience with CamStats, which was developed in collaboration between me, Kate Jones and Dave Ashby for Camden Police in late 2003, with the website operating from early 2004 until late 2007.

As you can see from the slideshow above, the information that CamStats provided is richer than what is available today. CamStats was based on static maps, and was very easy to produce – we designed it so a team administrator (with no GIS skills) could compile monthly and annual statistics simply by copying a data file to a processing machine, and then clicking one button in Mapinfo Professional which called Mapbasic, Perl scripts and other utilities to create, process and map the data and compile the HTML pages for the website into one zip file. All the user had to do was transfer the zip file to the Met web team who easily updated the webserver by unzipping the files. The fact that it was running for three years without any request for support is something that Kate and I are justifiably proud of.

Notice that CamStats provided options to see different geographical units, different forms of visualisation and to view the information in tabular and chart forms. Users could even download the aggregate counts for each area to compile there own reports. This was particularly useful for a number of community groups in Camden.

There is no question that the use of Google Maps, which provide context for the statistics is a huge usability improvement over our implementation. However, it will be interesting to see how long it will take the Met team to reach the functionality and ease of use CamStats provided …

The Environment Agency has released the new version of their ‘What’s In Your Back Yard?’ application, which allows you to find out about pollution incidents, water quality, and flood risk in your area. Similar to the rest of the website, it is still designed for 800×600 screen resolution, although not really – the legend spills to the bottom and requires scrolling down.

The application takes a lot of the new interaction metaphors that we’ve become accustomed to in Web Mapping 2.0 – slippy maps that can be panned easily, obtaining information by point and click on the map – unlike the cumbersome way in which it was handled in the previous version. There are also other improvements such as more data.

Yet, there remain some of the most common mistakes that I have pointed to in the past – the maps are still small and too generalised to really see what is in your area, they still have the weird scale statement at the top of the map (what does it means that the scale is 1:650,000?).

Also, notice that the slippy map implementation is such that, after you move the map, it disappears and then reappears – it takes about 3 seconds which is enough to make it difficult to relocate yourself on the map. That’s actually not a good implementation – the whole point of slippy maps is that only a small area of the screen is being refreshed, making it easy for users to keep the image in their short-term memory.
The last aspect that I would expect in such an application released in 2008 is the ability to download the data from the application (see the Power of Information report) or to have a well-controlled API as in OS OpenSpace.

So, it’s a move in the right direction, but a long way to go …

The Experienced Noise

3 June, 2008

While the new Defra noise maps provide the results of a computerised model, the experience of noisy places can be mapped through community mapping, as was demonstrated recently in the Royal Docks area and the Pepys Estate.

Within the Mapping Change for Sustainable Communities project, and through the collaboration with London Sustainability Exchange and London 21 projects on Environmental Justice and with the help of Christian Nold, we have recently carried out studies of noise in two areas in east London. While the method is based on a systematic data collection framework, it does not intend to replace detailed acoustics studies that the authorities should carry out regarding sources of noise which influence residential areas. What it does is enable communities to get evidence about their experience, the maximum levels of noise that they are exposed to and to identify the sources of noise that influence the specific place.

The following text is taken from the press release that we have just issued:

People living in the Pepys Estate in Lewisham and in the Royal Docks area in Newham have led the way with a new way to tackle noise. The Pepys Estate currently suffers noise pollution from a scrapyard near the centre of the estate and very close to both a primary and nursery school, while Royal Docks suffers noise problems resulting from flights in and out of London City Airport (LCA), where a major expansion is threatened.

The project supplied local residents with noise meters and trained them in how to use these devices. They went on to make over 1500 measurements at all times of day and night and developed their own ‘noise maps’.

The results of this ‘citizen science’ have been remarkable. On the Pepys Estate members of the Community Forum found disturbingly high levels of noise, often continuing outside normal working hours. This noise affected quality of life up to 350 metres from the scrapyard. They have been trying to deal with this problem for over six years, initially raising concerns with the Mayor of Lewisham and others in September 2002. Since this time the disturbance has actually escalated. Now armed with this information they called a public meeting to present their findings to the council and the Environment Agency.

Lewisham Council and the Environment Agency accept that there is a problem. After seeing the results of the survey the Agency has appointed an acoustic consultant to carry out a detailed analysis of noise in and from the scrapyard. The residents who carried out the survey will meet with the consultant to share their information, and will work with the council to agree an action plan for moving forward.

The communities surrounding London City Airport (LCA), including Virginia Quays and Thamesmead, also found troubling results. Many readings exceed levels deemed to cause serious annoyance under the World Health Organisation community noise guidelines. The measurements gathered by the community revealed a clear correlation between unacceptable levels of noise and the LCA operational hours. More interestingly, the results obtained by both communities indicate that people are quite accurate in their perceptions of noise levels and the survey enabled them to express how these affected them. One of the residents said ‘the noise is irritable, I can’t relax or have the window open – but I can’t shut out the noise so have to turn the TV up – but everything is then so loud.’

The full press release is available here.

The new noise maps for England are yet another example of how environmental information is presented to the public in ways that do not make sense, and, I suspect, alienate rather than include people in understanding the state of their environment.

A few weeks ago, the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) release their modelled noise maps for main urban areas of England. There is no doubt about the popular interest in these maps – the site collapsed on the first day of publicity due to demand, and the message ‘Due to the popularity of the site we are currently experiencing very heavy load’ is on display.  This also happened to the Environment Agency when they released their ‘What’s in your backyard?’ and flood maps in 1998.

Yet, the maps are as difficult to understand as the previous version of the London noise maps that were released in 2004 (see image below from the now defunct site).

Defra London Noise Maps 2004

In the new maps, the maps are smaller in size than the London test site (occupying just 29.2% of the screen at 1024×768). They are either too generalised (Rail noise) or are detailed but without street names and landmarks (Roads), and, although noise is experienced as a combination of the impacts from industry, air, rail and road, the site gives no option of seeing all the layers together!

While the site makes it clear that the data is just modelled and was produced for strategic purposes, the message that ‘Users are strongly encouraged to read the explanatory information’ is not immediately visible – you need to scroll down to see it! Furthermore, the site does not explain what this ‘strategic assessment’ is – strategy of whom? For what end?

I do have sympathy with the designers, and I know from personal experience how difficult it is to display this information with all the political and organisational pressures, but without end-user testing and improvements the release of this information in such an inaccessible form can lead people to feel even more disenfranchised about environmental information…

Below you can find the presentation that I gave at the Open Knowledge Conference on 15th March. The presentation focuses on the issue of environmental information and Open Knowledge and covers several areas of open information and access to environmental information, starting with a short overview of the background, followed by some examples of environmental information over the internet from the past 14 years. It continues with a few examples of recent development and a discussion of the work that we’ve been carrying out at UCL recently. Finally, there are observations on access to information in the environmental field. The presentation contains notes that explain each of the slides – for a version with the notes, click here.

One interesting observation from the discussions during the conference was that the discourse of Open Knowledge, which is a political discussion, is lacking in the area of political philosophy, and bringing this issue up will reveal, I suspect, inherent differences which are very significant for the substance of the licenses’ structures, software design and many other aspects in this area.

What I mean by political philosophy is that if you approach Open Knowledge from an egalitarian or altruistic approach then you would have a specific set of perceptions about what it can be used for, by whom and under which conditions, which will be very different to an approach taken by a strong techno-libertarian believer. The egalitarian approach might emphasise the fact that the use of your knowledge must be beneficial for society, and, if the data or software is used for personal benefit, then there should be some social payback. It is likely that no demands will be made restricting further use. The techno-libertarian approach will pick and choose which rights you want to protect (yours) and which you don’t (for example, those of media companies). You are likely to dictate certain conditions on the use of your data, to further your belief.

The core issue is what is the social change that you are trying to lead and what levers are you using to achieve it?

The argument against an explicit discussion of political philosophy is that it can destroy Open Knowledge projects (such as OpenStreetMap, where a whole range of underlying political philosophies can be found), but the problem is that the licensing and legal structures around them are unsatisfactory exactly because the politics remain unarticulated.

Even if in many projects the politics are hidden, I think that conferences and meetings (such as OKCon) should be the right forum to discuss these aspects.


For a more detailed analysis of public access to environmental  information, see Haklay, M., 2003, Public Access to Environmental Information: Past, Present and Future, Computers, Environment and Urban Systems, 27, 163-180
and other publications.


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