OUseful.Info, the blog…

Trying to find useful things to do with emerging technologies in open education

A First – Not Very Successful – Look at Using Ordnance Survey OpenLayers…

What’s the easiest way of creating a thematic map, that shows regions coloured according to some sort of measure?

Yesterday, I saw a tweet go by from @datastore about Carbon emissions in every local authority in the UK, detailing those emissions for a list of local authorities (whatever they are… I’ll come on to that in a moment…)

Carbon emissions data table

The dataset seemed like a good opportunity to try out the Ordnance Survey’s OpenLayers API, which I’d noticed allows you to make use of OS boundary data and maps in order to create thematic maps for UK data:

OS thematic map demo

So – what’s involved? The first thing was to try and get codes for the authority areas. The ONS make various codes available (download here) and the OpenSpace website also makes available a list of boundary codes that it can render (download here), so I had a poke through the various code files and realised that the Guardian emissions data seemed to identify regions that were coded in different ways? So I stalled there and looked at another part f the jigsaw…

…specifically, OpenLayers. I tried the demo – Creating thematic boundaries – got it to work for the sample data, then tried to put in some other administrative codes to see if I could display boundaries for other area types… hmmm…. No joy:-) A bit of digging identified this bit of code:

boundaryLayer = new OpenSpace.Layer.Boundary("Boundaries", {
strategies: [new OpenSpace.Strategy.BBOX()],
area_code: ["EUR"],
styleMap: styleMap });

which appears to identify the type of area codes/boundary layer required, in this case “EUR”. So two questions came to mind:

1) does this mean we can’t plot layers that have mixed region types? For example, the emissions data seemed to list names from different authority/administrative area types?
2) what layer types are available?

A bit of digging on the OpenLayers site turned up something relevant on the Technical FAQ page:

OS OpenSpace boundary DESCRIPTION, (AREA_CODE) and feature count (number of boundary areas of this type)

County, (CTY) 27
County Electoral Division, (CED) 1739
District, (DIS) 201
District Ward, (DIW) 4585
European Region, (EUR) 11
Greater London Authority, (GLA) 1
Greater London Authority Assembly Constituency, (LAC) 14
London Borough, (LBO) 33
London Borough Ward, (LBW) 649
Metropolitan District, (MTD) 36
Metropolitan District Ward, (MTW) 815
Scottish Parliament Electoral Region, (SPE) 8http://ouseful.wordpress.com/wp-admin/edit.php
Scottish Parliament Constituency, (SPC) 73
Unitary Authority, (UTA) 110
Unitary Authority Electoral Division, (UTE) 1334
Unitary Authority Ward, (UTW) 1464
Welsh Assembly Electoral Region, (WAE) 5
Welsh Assembly Constituency, (WAC) 40
Westminster Constituency, (WMC) 632

so presumably all those code types can be used as area_code arguments in place of “EUR”?

Back to one of the other pieces of the jigsaw: the OpenLayers API is called using official area codes, but the emissions data just provides the names of areas. So somehow I need to map from the area names to an area code. This requires: a) some sort of lookup table to map from name to code; b) a way of doing that.

Normally, I’d be tempted to use a Google Fusion table to try to join the emissions table with the list of boundary area names/codes supported by OpenSpace, but then I recalled a post by Paul Bradshaw on using the Google spreadsheets VLOOKUP formula (to create a thematic map, as it happens: Playing with heat-mapping UK data on OpenHeatMap), so thought I’d give that a go… no joy:-( For seem reason, the vlookup just kept giving rubbish. Maybe it was happy with really crappy best matches, even if i tried to force exact matches. It almost felt like formula was working on a differently ordered column to the one it should have been, I have no idea. So I gave up trying to make sense of it (something to return to another day maybe; I was in the wrong mood for trying to make sense of it, and now I am just downright suspicious of the VLOOKUP function!)…

…and instead thought I’d give the openheatmap application Paul had mentioned a go…After a few false starts (I thought I’d be able to just throw a spreadsheet at it and then specify the data columns I wanted to bind to the visualisation, (c.f. Semantic reports), but it turns out you have to specify particular column names, value for the data value, and one of the specified locator labels) I managed to upload some of the data as uk_council data (quite a lot of it was thrown away) and get some sort of map out:

openheatmap demo

You’ll notice there are a few blank areas where council names couldn’t be identified.

So what do we learn? Firstly, the first time you try out a new recipe, it rarely, if ever, “just works”. When you know what you’re doing, and “all you have to do is…”, all is a little word. When you don’t know what you’re doing, all is a realm of infinite possibilities of things to try that may or may not work…

We also learn that I’m not really that much closer to getting my thematic map out… but I do have a clearer list of things I need to learn more about. Firstly, a few hello world examples using the various different OpenLayer layers. Secondly, a better understanding of the differences between the various authority types, and what sorts of mapping there might be between them. Thirdly, I need to find a more reliable way of reconciling data from two tables and in particular looking up area codes from area names (in two ways: code and area type from area name; code from area name and area type). VLOOKUP didn’t work for me this time, so I need to find out if that was my problem, or an “issue”.

Something else that comes to mind is this: the datablog asks: “Can you do something with this data? Please post your visualisations and mash-ups on our Flickr group”. IF the data had included authority codes, I would have been more likely to persist in trying to get them mapped using OpenLayers. But my lack of understanding about how to get from names to codes meant I stumbled at this hurdle. There was too much friction in going from area name to OpenLayer boundary code. (I have no idea, for example, whether the area names relate to one administrative class, or several).

Although I don’t think the following is the case, I do think it is possible to imagine a scenario where the Guardian do have a table that includes the administrative codes as well as names for this data, or an environment/application/tool for rapidly and reliably generating such a table, and that they know this makes the data more valuable because it means they can easily map it, but others can’t. The lack of codes means that work needs to be done in order to create a compelling map from the data that may attract web traffic. If it was that easy to create the map, a “competitor” might make the map and get the traffic for no real effort. The idea I’m fumbling around here is that there is a spectrum of stuff around a data set that makes it more or less easy to create visualiations. In the current example, we have area name, area code, map. Given an area code, it’s presumably (?) easy enough to map using e.g. OpenLayers becuase the codes are unambiguous. Given an area name, if we can reliably look up the area code, it’s presumably easy to generate the map from the name via the code. Now, if we want to give the appearance of publishing the data, but make it hard for people to use, we can make it hard for them to map from names to codes, either by messing around with the names, or using a mix of names that map on to area codes of different types. So we can taint the data to make it hard for folk to use easily whilst still be being seen to publish the data.

Now I’m not saying the Guardian do this, but a couple of things follow: firstly, obfuscating or tainting data can help you prevent casual use of it by others whilst at the same time ostensibly “open it up” (it can also help you track the data; e.g. mapping agencies that put false artefacts in their maps to help reveal plagiarism); secondly, if you are casual with the way you publish data, you can make it hard for people to make effective use of that data. For a long time, I used to hassle folk into publishing RSS feeds. Some of them did… or at least thought they did. For as soon as I tried to use their feeds, they turned out to be broken. No-one had ever tried to consume them. Same with data. If you publish your data, try to do something with it. So for example, the emissions data is illustrated with a Many Eyes visualisation of it; it works as data in at least that sense. From the place names, it would be easy enough to vaguely place a marker on a map showing a data value roughly in the area of each council. But for identifying exact administrative areas – the data is lacking.

It might seem as is if I’m angling against the current advice to councils and government departments to just “get their data out there” even if it is a bit scrappy, but I’m not… What I am saying (I think) is that folk should just try to get their data out, but also:

- have a go at trying to use it for something themselves, or at least just demo a way of using it. This can have a payoff in at least a three ways I can think of: a) it may help you spot a problem with the way you published the data that you can easily fix, or at least post a caveat about; b) it helps you develop your own data handling skills; c) you might find that you can encourage reuse of the data you have just published in your own institution…

- be open to folk coming to you with suggestions for ways in which you might be able to make the data more valuable/easier to use for them for little effort on your own part, and that in turn may help you publish future data releases in an ever more useful way.

Can you see where this is going? Towards Linked Data… ;-)

PS just by the by, a related post (that just happens to mention OUseful.info:-) on the Telegraph blogs about Open data ‘rights’ require responsibility from the Government led me to a quick chat with Telegraph data hack @coneee and the realisation that the Telegraph too are starting to explore the release of data via Google spreadsheets. So for example, a post on Councils spending millions on website redesigns as job cuts loom also links to the source data here: Data: Council spending on websites.

Written by Tony Hirst

September 17, 2010 at 4:18 pm

5 Responses

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  1. Do you have a data quality problem here? Sounds like you have data from different LG levels, but you’re trying to use it to tile a plane. Surely all the tiles must be at the same level, either all “county” level or all “district” level? And then are unitary authorities at _both_ levels? Tres tres messy!

    Chris Rusbridge

    September 17, 2010 at 7:04 pm

    • Possibly – I’m not sure exactly what the “level” of the original areas is. As to tiling across those different areas, yes: I can see that may be problematic;-)

      Tony Hirst

      September 17, 2010 at 8:43 pm

  2. Hi Tony,

    I’m also having big trouble with using the OpenSpace API with thematics boundaries. I’m trying to map London Boroughs (LBO). See my trial at http://www.web-gis.co.uk/shelter.html
    I’m stumped as to why it’s not working! I get boundaries showing up sometimes and sometimes they don’t!
    Ideally, I’d like to make an interactive map of the data from here (http://england.shelter.org.uk/professional_resources/policy_library/policy_library_folder/repossessions_hotspots)
    Let me know if you have any pointers.

    Cheers,

    Chris

    Chris

    July 2, 2011 at 9:16 pm

    • @chris I haven’t looked at the OpenSpace layers for a bit… @gothwin is my goto person…;-)

      Tony Hirst

      July 2, 2011 at 10:01 pm

  3. Thanks Tony. I’ll try @gothwin.

    Chris

    July 4, 2011 at 8:20 pm


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