Terraced house painted different colours

Tom Forth, Head of Data at ODI Leeds and Leigh Dodds, Data Infrastructure Programme Lead at the ODI, discuss the importance of open geospatial data.

Geospatial data is arguably the most prized form of open data: everything happens somewhere and we all want to know what’s going on in our patch. It’s understandable that we care most about our local hospital and GPs, about our local schools, and of course, when it comes to housing we care most about what happens in our own backyard.

This week the ODI Leeds team as part of a project led by BBC Look North and assisted by the BBC Visual Journalism Team have won two awards: a Royal Statistical Society prize for statistical excellence in journalism, and a Royal Television Society award.

The UK house prices explorer project and news story was powered by open data from the Land Registry on individual home sales for England and Wales. The data allowed the creation of detailed ward-level maps of the UK housing market which explored how house prices have changed over the past 20 years for every ward in England and Wales.

Far from the usual national picture of constantly rising house values, the data shows that in much of England and Wales values remain below where they were at their peak in 2008. Another key finding shows that there are large variations within regions, with neighbouring wards often seeing markedly different changes.

This granularity of data allows people to spot the trends in their own neighbourhoods: hyperlocal data giving hyperlocal insight. The BBC as a trusted news source – along with the robust Land Registry data and the expertise of ODI Leeds – has helped people connect with the story and the data and methodology behind it.

We hope this prize inspires agencies in Scotland and Northern Ireland to release open data so that similar analysis can be done for the whole of the UK. It should be easy because the tools, code, and output of this analysis have been released under an open licence. We hope that others consider sharing their work similarly.

The UK Geospatial Commission’s ongoing work to reduce licensing restrictions should make it easier for other organisations to open up more data and we are confident that this will enable similar stories in areas such as planning, housing, and environmental protection. In June 2018 the UK government announced that 'key parts of Ordnance Survey’s (OS) highly detailed OS MasterMap are being made completely open under the Open Government Licence (OGL), with the remaining data being made freely available up to a threshold of transactions.'.

This is significant, not only for us geospatial data fans but for the UK economy and its citizens. It means that property boundaries, derived from OS Master Map, will be published as open data, for anyone to access, use and share. It also means that OS will start adding Topographic Identifiers (TOIDs) to OS OpenMap-Local, which contains street-level data, making it easier to create links with other datasets.

Just as we couldn’t have predicted that this story would happen as a result of releasing Land Registry data, so we cannot be sure what fantastic analysis, stories, and products will be made possible and affordable in the future. To achieve this we encourage others to open up data so we can build on each other's work. The beauty of open data is that it allows more people to build businesses, understand the world, and tell the stories that matter in their lives, all while grounding those stories in high-quality and verifiable data. We look forward to seeing what’s next.

To find out more, see Tom Forth’s interview on BBC Look North, or you can see the BBC’s online tool for exploring the data, or ODI Leeds’s tool based on the same. If you’re a little bit more geeky, check out the project on GitHub and contribute to its improvement.