Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Number crunching

I've been contributing in a small way to OSM for a while now, and I am always impressed by the amount of information that keeps being added to the map. Although there is still work to do on the UK transport network, I think most would agree that it is now well above the level of coverage needed to provide a valuable platform for all kinds of different applications.

What I didn't have a good feel for is how well other aspects of the map are covered. I like to measure stuff, so in the down-time between Christmas and New Year, I've been playing around estimating how many examples of different features we should expect to find in the database, and comparing that estimate to how many are actually recorded.

This is inevitably a bit rough and ready. I needed to estimate how many examples of a feature I should expect to find. Then I needed to figure out a simple way of measuring how many are already in the database; with a reasonable level of confidence that both figures are counting the same things. This doesn't always work. For various reasons it turns out that it's not straightforward to measure things like the number of public telephones, airports, windmills, car parks, cemeteries, and sports grounds. I've included some figures on facilities like restaurants, and hotels, but I suspect that the definitions used in different statistics might not be a very good match to the definitions used by contributors. With more care I might be able to improve these in future.

Still, it's a starting point, and with all sorts of caveats, I think I can identify some features that users of the data can generally expect to find already exist in the database:

Bus stations
Petrol stations
Police stations
Fire stations

I think I can also identify some types of features where coverage is less complete, but where any particular example is still more likely to be found in the database than not. Some of these are already the target of concentrated activity to improve coverage. Perhaps others are the areas where some more careful analysis would be most useful.

A and E (England)
Post Offices
Cycle shops

The list of features that I explored is deliberately pretty arbitrary. I covered some that I happen to be interested in; some where I had an estimate to hand, or could easily uncover one; some drawn from OSM project of the month / week activity, and others because I thought they might be of interest to contributors, or of value to map users. The following list shows some where it looks as though contributors will find it fairly easy to find additional examples to add to the map.

Pret a manger stores
Starbucks stores
Ice rinks
Night clubs
Golf courses
Letter boxes
Swimming pools
Anglican churches
Veterinary clinics
Garden centres
Community pharmacies
Lifeboat stations
GP surgeries
Bowling alleys
Convenience stores
Sewage works
Branches of Greggs
Fish and chip shops
National Trust properties
English Heritage properties
Shops of all types
Charity shops

Unsurprisingly, my impression is that coverage is generally better for the bigger features that are more obvious (e.g. schools), and for those which particularly interest the OSM community (More pubs than post offices. More bicycle shops than golf courses. Surprisingly few fish and chip shops, though there are some tagging variants that would slightly boost coverage of these if I collected them more systematically). Some of the services that potential users might expect to find are not so well covered (e.g. GPs and dentists).

Even if they are rough  and ready, I think it has been useful to put numbers on some of this stuff. Partly because it helps to measure progress, partly to help think laterally about priorities, and partly as a sanity check on the amount of detail that is both practical and important. And not least because it already demonstrates an impressive level of coverage. However, there is no shortage of opportunity to record the existence of more interesting and useful features in 2012. You can bet on seeing more casinos and bookmakers; while other contributors get their teeth into the missing dentists.

I'll probably come back to this again. It's a bit of an iterative process, and if anyone wants to suggest a better estimate, a source of suitable data, or other features that I should try to measure, then please comment below.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

More seriously

For a far better version, do not bother reading my post below - go and look at what the Cycling Embassy has to say.

It seems that the rather bizarre resolution on making cycle helmets compulsory will be discussed by individual WI groups, before being considered at the annual meeting of their National Federation in May 2012.

The WI has 210,000 members, and 7,000 local organisations. Many of us have relatives, friends, or  neighbours who are active members of the WI. This looks like an opportunity to get wider issues relating to cycling and road safety onto their agenda, and to help them to reach a more informed position on cycling helmets and safety.

Points they might be encouraged to consider include:
  • If they are going to take a stance on making cycling helmets compulsory, then delegates will want to find either conclusive evidence, or a high level of consensus which supports their position. Although it might seem obvious to the layman that using a cycle helmet will improve safety, in reality the issues are quite complex. Before deciding where they stand on this issue themselves, delegates who expect to be taken seriously will want to study a range of evidence. This is one starting point. And this is another. Delegates may also wish to survey the position taken by their friends and neighbours who cycle. Many regular cyclists know from experience that a helmet can protect them from certain injuries in certain cases (typically, bumping their head as a result of a straightforward tumble). As a result they will normally wear a helmet, and encourage others to do so. However, few will be under any illusion that a cycle helmet will provide worthwhile protection in the case of a more serious incident, such as collision with a car. This broadly matches the conclusion reached by the Transport and Road Research Laboratory in 2009. However, wider research will uncover a variety of views, and evidence that is far from conclusive.
  • A number of different approaches are currently used to improve cycling safety. Examples include special training for cyclists, campaigns to raise driver awareness of the risks, devices attached to large vehicles to improve visibility, and investment in separate cycle infrastructure. Before they endorse mandatory cycling helmets as the preferred solution, delegates will wish to consider alternative safety initiatives, and assess their effectiveness and the wider implications.  The WI has a wide reach, high visibility, and considerable credibility. They will want reassurance that by endorsing one particular approach they are not encouraging drivers, cyclists, policy makers, and the general public to ignore or resist other safety measures that might, in practice, have greater potential to improve safety.
  • Cycling has been encouraged by successive governments on the basis of environmental and public health benefits. The WI has a history of supporting environmental causes, campaigning to reduce carbon emissions, and an interest in public health issues. Road traffic accounts for 22% of the UK's carbon emissions, and contributes to pollution, poor air quality, congestion and noise. Many see  cycling as a viable alternative to using the car for shorter journeys; as a means of reducing the environmental impact of traffic, and of making the roads more accessible to people who have no alternative to using a car. While there are risks associated with almost any physical activity, many cyclists feel that the risks they face are exaggerated, and argue that, from a wider public health perspective, the risks associated with cycling are outweighed by the public health benefits. Changes to government policy in this area will be challenged by a vocal cycling community which generally believes that any disincentive to cycling will have a knock-on effect on policies related to public health and the environment; and that international experience suggests that encouraging more cyclists onto the roads is an effective way to improve safety for all cyclists. A claim that compulsory wearing of helmets will encourage more cycling will need to be substantiated.
  • The government faces a number of different issues, and is committed to reducing regulatory burdens and red tape. Any decent government is concerned to represent interests across the whole of society. So before recommending additional legislation in one particular area it would be prudent for the WI to develop a persuasive case why cyclist safety should take priority over other risks. Why, for example, should the deaths of 111 cyclists and injuries to 2,600 cyclists a year take precedence over 800 deaths due to obesity, 4,000 children who fall out of windows, 9,700 people injured as a result of drunk driving, or 500,000 elderly people admitted to A&E departments as a result of a fall at home?
  • It has been long established (in principle and practice) that roads are a shared asset, funded by general taxation. Everyone is entitled to use them, whether in a vehicle, on a cycle, a horse, or on foot. With a mix of traffic, the free flow of vehicles, and the safety of all road users depends on a high degree of collaboration and consideration.  In principle, all those who share the roads have a responsibility to consider the safety of the more vulnerable. In practice, though, things are more confrontational. Many cyclists have experience of motorists shouting abuse, throwing things at them, or driving aggressively. Similarly cyclists are widely criticised for not considering the needs of motorists, and the safety of pedestrians. The WI is in the rare position of being able to encourage, on behalf of all road users, a more balanced, collaborative and considerate approach.  If they end up endorsing the mandatory wearing of cycle helmets they risk being characterised as seeing the most vulnerable as being solely responsible for this aspect of safety; and siding with those who argue that those who face the highest transport costs have the greater level of entitlement.
You can find your nearest WI here.

And / or sign the petition here

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

We urge Her Majesty’s Government to make the wearing of helmets in the home a legal requirement

We urge Her Majesty’s Government to make the wearing of helmets in the home a legal requirement in order to prevent unnecessary deaths or serious and long lasting injuries.

The purpose of helmets is to reduce the risk of serious injury to the head. There is currently no legal requirement in the UK to wear a helmet in the home.

More accidents happen at home than anywhere else. The cost to society of UK home accident injuries has been estimated at £25,000 million annually.

Every year in the UK more than 5,000 people die in accidents in the home and 2.7 million need treatment at an accident and emergency department (this compares to 111 pedal cyclists killed and 2,620 seriously injured on the roads).

Falls are the most common accidents in the home - 55% of accidental injuries in the home involve a fall. Every year more than 4,200 children are involved in falls on the stairs and 4,000 children under the age of 15 are injured falling from windows. However, the risk of falling in the home increases with age. Falls account for 71% of all fatal accidents to those aged 65 and over. The most serious injuries usually happen on the stairs.

But falling is not the only risk. In the United States the Consumer Product Safety Commission reported a significant number of injuries and deaths in the home related to televisions falling on children. More than half a million people a year suffer injuries to the head at home, and accidents in the home account for about 40% of all head injuries.

Hence, helmet wearing in the home could encourage more people to spend more time at home - particularly the elderly. However, some may consider that this resolution is too narrow. Perhaps it should propose compulsory helmet wearing as just one part of a wider drive to encourage more people to stay inside, where they will be safe. Or even compulsory wearing of a helmet at all times.

And if you think this sounds bonkers, consider the WI 2012 resolution short list briefings

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Wednesday, 14 December 2011


It would be easy to have a knee-jerk reaction to the Portas review of the future of high streets. I'm no fan of celebrity-based policy development. These issues are complex, there are significant changes in play that are not going to be reversed, some of the remedies that have been bandied about are implausible (to put it mildly), and a number of powerful vested interests are busy grinding axes. However, in this case, her core message is important, and she is helping to get a real problem on the public agenda . It's the specific recommendations that need unpicking.

"I... fundamentally believe that once we invest in and create social capital in the heart of our communities, the economic capital will follow."

Her core idea seems to be that high streets should be developed as an asset to the community, so that economic benefits flow from social benefits, rather than approaching things the other way round. This approach seems right to me, and an insight that deserves widespread support. She offers some creative ideas about how her vision might be achieved. But the report ends with a number of specific recommendations, and here things begin to fall apart a bit. There are 28 in total, and my general feeling is that they could have done with a bit more consideration of how best central government can influence policy at a more local level.

For example, she recommends that local areas should implement free parking schemes, and just use parking revenues to improve parking. Oddly, Portas seems to recognise the wider context. The section covering the issues is even headed "access to town centres" - but then she dives straight into a discussion of parking issues, ignoring the others. And finally concludes that the solution is that parking needs to be insulated from the wider context. This just doesn't make sense to me.
  • Local authorities either need to generate additional income, or cut services (or both). Any money that doesn't come from parking will have to come from somewhere else. Retailers, and people who park cars have every right to plead that the impact should not fall on them. But everyone else has a right to make the same case. Parking provision costs money, so, in effect, providing free town centre parking is offering a local government subsidy to shoppers and retailers. Nothing wrong with that in principle, but if we push that issue up our ranking of priorities then something else goes down. I'm sure we all like the idea of having a vibrant town centre, but I doubt there is the same level of agreement about what we are prepared to give up to achieve it. Most importantly, resolving those trade-offs is the domain of local democracy, not Whitehall.
  • Secondly, parking is just one aspect of local transport policy. Personally I avoid taking my car into a town centre because I want to avoid congestion - not the cost of parking. Every car that brings someone into the town centre is contributing to congestion, and makes town centre access more difficult for others. Because of where they live, or because of mobility problems, some people can only reach their local shops by car. Depending on the quality of the local road network, level of parking provision, and extent of the public transport network, offering free parking may make things no better, and could make things worse for shoppers and retailers. I'm sure there are examples where free parking would help, but I'm pretty confident that it's no panacea.
  • Thirdly, town centres are not only competing with online, and out of town alternatives. They are also competing with each other. Visitors make a significant contribution to the health of some our most successful  high streets. There is little future in encouraging a race to the bottom between neighbouring towns, based on the price of parking. If she is going to realise her vision, then neighbouring towns should be encouraged to compete on the quality of the experience, not prevented from doing so where her specific choice won't work 
I know that retailers tend to obsess about parking issues, but her brief was to promote the high street, not encourage use of cars. So I don't understand why the report didn't recommend something more along the lines of  "Local authorities must be encouraged to integrate public transport, parking and highways policy in a way that ensures that the high street is easily accessible to the whole community".

Something a bit less prescriptive, and a bit more local.

Monday, 12 December 2011


Cycling* England collects figures on participation in different sports. The latest statistics were published last week, and relate to the year up to October 2011.

Sport England measure the proportion of adults participating in different sports. The measure of cycling covers recreational and competitive cycling but not cycling for travel purposes. It includes BMX, cyclo-cross and mountain biking.

In the first part of their survey year I would have qualified as participating in cycling, in the second part of the year I wouldn't. However, more than 8% of survey respondents did. That's more cycling than kicking footballs, and more than twice as many cycling as hitting golf balls. There are a lot of swimmers.

However, the detailed report on cycling shows that the amount of organised cycling remains fairly static, but there is a decline in informal cycling, and among some age groups.

* Not Cycling England, of course - that should be Sport England


I've been trying out Bikehub, asking it to generate rides of 30, 60 and 90 minutes starting from home. Two of the routes that it has suggested are almost identical to two of the best routes that I found by myself, and the third is very similar to another.

I am hugely impressed.

But there are a couple of flies in the ointment.

All three rides took a lot longer than Bikehub suggested. I don't think I can blame them, though. I already knew that I have to work on my speed, and perhaps I should stop less often to admire the views.

And, if Bikehub can generate good rides so quickly and easily, what is my next excuse for poring over maps to work things out for myself?

Try it here

Monday, 5 December 2011

Points of interest gadget

There are something in the region of a thousand scheduled monuments and protected historic buildings within cycling distance of where we now live. Some of them will be worth adding to OSM. I also see some of them as potential destinations or stopping points as I trundle around on the bike. I'm also trying to learn a bit about the area. So I'm interested in what is there, and where it is.

More importantly I felt like tinkering a bit with Openlayers on a smartphone.

So I've made myself a little gadget by kludging together various bits. There's a KML file of points of interest that I scraped (using Perl) from various published lists. I then edited the examples of Openlayers that use geolocation, display the OSM map, and overlay a KML file. The result is that I now have an "app" (really a web page with a slippy map) that works on a smartphone to mark Points of Interest with a pushpin. It follows me around, staying centred on my current location. A brief description of each point will pop up when a pin is touched.

For me it was a bit of a learning curve to get this working, but that says more about my limited expertise than it does about how difficult it really is. In truth none of it is very complicated.

To begin with I found it most useful at pointing out things that I hadn't noticed beforehand. Several buildings that I had been passing without a second glance turned out to be more interesting than I realised.

Now I've tried using it to locate a specific destination - and that worked fine as well. As I came home on a bitterly cold evenng it occurred to me that when our visitors arrive for Christmas and want to explore the area, we can send them out with this - while we stay warm indoors.

Pre-loading a smart phone with a collection of things that need fixing on the map seems like something that would be useful to the OSM community. An even larger group of people might like to pre-load the equivalent of a local guide-book.

But those happen to be the first two things I thought of. The nice thing is that, with the right tools in place it's fairly easy to generate data sets for displaying all sorts of different kinds of point of interest on a map.

Somebody must already have thought of this, and produced something a bit more sophisticated than my little gadget.

But who?

Friday, 2 December 2011

Charles Harper heads north

I discovered Charles Harper, and his "Cycle Rides Round London" when we lived in the Thames valley. It provided me with some ideas for interesting rides, rediscovering the routes that he described in 1902, or thereabouts.

Now we have moved to the other end of the country, I've been sampling his book on the Great North Road. I doubt if this is going to prove a useful way of devising routes, but parts of it are a still a bit of a treat (once you get used to the language).

As usual Mr Harper is pretty pungent about the local aristocracy, but it is new to find him being equally rude about the weather. Sometimes he combines the two. He suggests, for example, that border warfare was the way that the northern aristocracy kept warm (and that football took its place when the courts started to take a dim view).

He was writing some fifty years after railways had displaced coaches as the main way of travelling between London and Edinburgh. On reaching Darlington, he expounds on the different merits of the two systems.

Describing the railway as "a method of progression which does not admit of outside passengers" he continues...

Nothing in its special way can be more exhilarating than travelling by coach as an "outside"; few things so unsatisfactory as the position of an "inside"; and if a well-groomed coach is a thing of beauty, there is also a beautiful majesty in a locomotive engine that has been equally well looked after. One of the deep-chested Great Northern expresses puffing its irresistible way past the green eyes of the dropped semaphores of some busy junction at night-time, or coming as with the rush and certainty of Fate along the level stretches of line that characterise the route of the iron road to the North, is a sight calculated to rouse enthusiasm quite as much as a coach. Nor are railways always hideous objects. It is true that in and around the great centres of population where railway lines converge and run in filthy tunnels and along smoke be-grimed viaducts they sound the last note of squalor, but in the country it is a different matter.

The embankments are in spring often covered with a myriad wild flowers ; the viaducts give a human interest to coombe and gully. Lovers of the country can certainly point to places which, once remote and solitary, have been populated and spoiled by the readiness of railway access; but the locomotive has rendered more holidays possible, and has kept the roads in a decent solitude for the cyclist. 

Imagine, if you please, the Great North Road nowadays without the railway. A hundred coaches, more or less, raced along it in the last years of the coaching age, at all hours of the day and night. How many would suffice for the needs of the travelling public to-day ? and what chance would be left to the tourist, afoot or awheel?

More than 100 years ago, he saw railways freeing the roads for cyclists.

There's a thought.

The book can be downloaded here.