‘More or Less‘ is a good programme on BBC Radio 4. Regularly exploring the numbers and the evidence behind news stories and other important things, and checking if they stand out. However, the piece that was broadcast this week about Golf courses and housing in the UK provides a nice demonstration of when not to use crowdsourced information. The issue that was discussed was how much actual space golf courses occupy, when compared to space that is used for housing. All was well, until they announced in the piece the use of clever software (read GIS) with a statistical superhero to do the analysis. Interestingly, the data that was used for the analysis was OpenStreetMap – and because the news item was about Surrey, they started doing the analysis with it.
For the analysis to be correct, you need to assume that all the building polygons in OpenStreetMap and all the Golf courses have been identified and mapped. My own guess that in Surrey, this could be the case – especially with all the wonderful work of James Rutter catalysed. However, assuming that this is the case for the rest of the country is, well, a bit fancy. I wouldn’t dare to state that OpenStreetMap is complete to such a level, without lots of quality testing which I haven’t seen. There is only the road length analysis of ITO World! and other bits of analysis, but we don’t know how complete OSM is.
While I like OpenStreetMap very much, it is utterly unsuitable for any sort of statistical analysis that works at the building level and then summing up to the country level – because of the heterogeneity of the data . For that sort of thing, you have to use a consistent dataset, or at least one that attempts to be consistent, and that data comes from the Ordnance Survey.
As with other statistical affairs, the core case that is made about the assertion as a whole in the rest of the clip is relevant here. First, we should question the unit of analysis (is it right to compare the footprint of a house to the area of Golf courses? Probably not) and what is to be gained by adding up individual building’s footprints to the level of the UK while ignoring roads, gardens, and all the rest of the built environment. Just because it is possible to add up every building’s footprint, doesn’t mean that you should. Second, this analysis is the sort of example of ‘Big Data’ fallacy which goes analyse first, then question (if at all) what the relationship between the data and reality.