The OpenPlanning project was a collaboration between the CreativeExchange at Lancaster University, Liverpool University, and RedNinja studios. Our vision was to develop an app for personal access to development plans nearby.
As inspiration, we took the example of Patrick Geddes, who amongst other contributions developed concepts critical to modern regional planning. In the late 19th century, he purchased a derelict town in Edinburgh’s centre and made it into an ‘outlook tower’. Doing so, he aimed to give residents of Edinburgh the opportunity to develop a new understanding of their city. Geddes’ tower served as a symbol for a distinct type of ‘mapping’ of the city, one that empowered people literally to ‘see’ the city. Today’s planning discipline is very process driven, with less room for personal expression. With OpenPlanning we wanted to explore what we might be able to learn from Patrick Geddes’ approach.
At the outset of the project, we completed a comprehensive requirements appraisal with key stakeholders. As the project took place in parallel with tough budget cuts at Liverpool City Council, a key driver was the city council’s own resource limitations.
In October 2014, we completed an early prototype and test this with a small user group.
As the project progressed, we found we could not accessing the planning applications database, hosted by an external contractor. This imposed high technical hurdles. Although planning application data is open data, the contractor could enforce database rights. Additionally, they would certainly not commit to technical adaptations, which they would not be paid for.
The eventual prototype relied on scraping of data from the city council’s website directly, as opposed to accessing the database. Citizens using the Open Planning app on their phone were able to see active planning application in their proximity and area of interest (e.g. residential, commercial, and other types of applications). However, anybody who has tried building a scraping system before knows that this is a sub-optimal solution.
There was huge enthusiasm and drive to develop the project further. Red Ninja, the developer company behind the prototype application, and the city council expanded the initial user trails. However, lack of access to the planning database continued to present an obstacle.
In a brief paper on the project, we concluded the planning system (and possible technology procurement) required a change in values towards transparency and ease-of-access. The Open Planning app was a proof of concept — its potential is yet to be achieved.
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