What we can Learn from the Open Release of Flood Data

30th April 2020

Thanks, Gordon Brown. (What we can learn from the open release of flood data).

In 2009 Berners-Lee suggested to Gordon Brown that the best way to make use of the internet was to put all the government data on it. To his surprise, Mr Brown said yes. No one was quite ready for that.

Roll on to 2015, and in one of the (still) only significant shake-ups in the geospatial sector, DEFRA started making announcements about releasing open data. Incredibly, this included Environment Agency data. A move long resisted to protect its purported one per cent income contribution from commercial data licensing and its insistence that misuse of data would lead to danger to life.

As Mike Rose, Open Data Consultant, cutely put it "This argument held. Until it flooded." Frances Maude pushed to get Mr Brown's commitment over the line. The rest is history.

Such is the complete openness of the Environment Agency data (you don’t have to register to use it), there is only anecdotal evidence of its positive socio-economic benefit. But the signs are strong. For example, the Environment Agency’s open flood risk API recently hit 3.26m calls in a single day. Whether that’s direct, through apps, websites or other products, that’s 3.26m critical pieces of real-time information shared, that could save lives and property. As far I’m aware there has been no danger to life because the data was made open.

At Terrafirma, we know the massive potential in all things 'ground' and believe this lesson in opening flood data offers a very important case study for the work being done by the Geospatial Commission. History tells us that individual public sector data providers are unlikely to make these significant changes without a top-down imposition. What’s left is teetering around the edges of the status quo. By significantly lowering the market barrier through open data (or simplifying licensing and pricing models to improve wider accessibility), many more applications will appear. This will provide multiple touch points for people (public and professionals alike) to consume and be better informed.

The flood case study demonstrates that it is now serving the purpose for which it was created, to save lives and property. Our mission is to champion this for 'ground' and for everyone to have the opportunity to #understandtheground.

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Photo: Andy Falconer, Unsplash

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Blog written by Lucy Oxer

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