Timeline

  • 2010: EA stopped charging for non-commercial use of their data
  • 2011: EA released bathing water quality data as open data
  • Dec 2013: A storm surge culminated in severe flooding across Southern England
  • Feb 2014: EA temporarily released flood data for a Flood Hack hosted by Tech City UK
  • May 2014: EA committed to becoming an open data organisation
  • Nov 2014: First Data Advisory Group meeting held to help prioritise data for open release
  • Dec 2014: EA released Risk of Flooding from Rivers and Sea (RoFRS) dataset as open data
  • Jun 2015: EA agreed to a transition plan to open all its commercial data by 2018
  • Sep 2015: EA released valuable Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) as open data
  • Apr 2018: EA is committed to having released all of its charged-for datasets as open data by April 2018

Data and the Environment Agency

Initially EA charged everyone to access and use its data for their environmental decisions – whether public, private, commercial or noncommercial – in line with the Wider Market Initiative policy. It later stopped charging for the non-commercial use of its data. As the reuse of public sector information regulations came into place in 2005 and the topic moved up the political agenda, EA started to think about making more of its data freely available.

Since [the regulations] came in it's been a natural progression and of increasing interest and increasing importance [to make data publicly available]. There's this ever growing body of evidence suggesting that we should be releasing open data, and a growing interest from politicians and the rest.

– Miles Gabriel, Data, Mapping, Modelling & Information, EA

It began by releasing relatively niche, less commercial datasets as open data. Notably, however, bathing water quality data was released as open data in 2011 and useful products and services were soon built using it.

Over the past few years, EA has further explored the potential of open data, often working with the ODI to help it to make the most of its information.

It makes sense to be more transparent, to use data to help deliver our outcomes and to enable the rest of society to benefit from it in ways we could not imagine. Recently the new Defra Secretary of State has made open data an absolute priority for the department, and so we are well placed to accelerate our open data approach.

— Miranda Kavanagh, Executive Director of Evidence, EA

Weighing up the costs and benefits

Several issues concerned EA about releasing more of its data under open licences. The contractual relationship it had with people paying for its data meant it could ensure it was used appropriately, without risk of misuse or misinterpretation. Opening it up for anyone to use would mean losing that control. EA would also stand to lose revenue gained from charging for access to its data: about £6m per year.

Opening the floodgates

Between December 2013 and May 2014 England suffered a period of extreme weather activity. A storm surge and heavy rain led EA to issue 50 severe flood warnings. About 8,000 properties flooded in that period and 200,000 properties were protected by EA’s flood defence assets. EA closed the Thames barrier over 25 times during the floods to manage the water flow.

In February 2014, EA was asked by the government to open some of its flood data for a Flood Hack to be hosted by Tech City UK at Google’s Campus. At this stage, access to EA’s data was restricted and opening it up for use in such a short space of time would not have been easy. EA enlisted the help of Shoothill, a specialist data and software company. Shoothill already had paid access to the flood warning data and had built a robust API – an application program interface – to enable others to use the data in their own applications and tools. EA agreed to make the API available for the Flood Hack and beyond.

As detailed later, this enabled developers to come up with a range of solutions: from a phone service that connects people with their energy suppliers in the event of a power cut to an app that alerts Twitter users to volunteering opportunities in their local area.

Initially this data was only supposed to be open for three months, but as Open Data Manager at EA’s Evidence Directorate Mike Rose explains: “it was unrealistic ever to think that after three months we’d lock it all back up again […] Though it didn’t seem like it at the time, this fundamentally changed how we thought about our data and information.”

Planning for better quality open data

Seeing the benefits from having better-informed users of its data, and more useful applications to reduce the risks and effects of flooding, EA worked through resourcing and structural shifts in order to open up its RoFRS dataset with an Open Government Licence in December 2014.

EA raised data management as an ‘organisational risk’ in 2011, meaning senior management monitors how well the organisation is doing using a data maturity model developed by EA. It covers governance, ownership, security, sharing, interdependencies, data standards and data quality. This helps track and communicate progress across the organisation, and helps to identify risks and priorities.

EA assesses its open data maturity and journey towards becoming ‘open by default’ using the ODI’s Open Data Pathway.

Engaging the community

With more focus on open data, EA has created a sector engagement plan to understand how different types of people and organisations might use it, thinking about users outside of those it had worked with before and were familiar with. This culminated in the launch of the Environment Agency Data Advisory Group (EADAG).

EADAG, comprising organisations who have an interest in EA data, like Shoothill and ESI International, along with local councils and independent experts such as those from the ODI and Owen Boswarva. The group meets quarterly and advises EA on data it should prioritise for release, best practice and what will be of most use to data users.