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River level data must be open

February 13, 2014 in Open Geodata, Open Government Data

My home – as you can see – is flooded, for the second time in a month. The mighty Thames is reclaiming its flood-plains, and making humans – especially the UK government’s Environment Agency – look puny and irrelevant. As I wade to and fro, putting sandbags around the doors, carrying valuables upstairs, and adding bricks to the stacks that prop up the heirloom piano, I occasionally check the river level data at the Agency website, and try to estimate how high the water will rise, and when.

[IMG: Flooded front door]

There are thousands of river monitoring stations across the UK, recording water levels every few minutes. The Agency publishes the resulting data on its website, in pages like this. For each station it shows a graph of the level over the last 24 hours (actually, the 24 hours up to the last reported data: my local station stopped reporting three days ago, presumably overwhelmed by the water), and has some running text giving the current level in metres above a local datum. There’s a small amount of station metadata, and that’s all. No older data, and no tabular data. I can’t:

  • See the levels over the course of a previous flood;
  • Measure how quickly the river typically rises, or how long it typically takes to go down;
  • Compare today’s flood to that four weeks ago (or those in 2011 or 2003);
  • Easily navigate to the data for neighbouring stations up and down river;
  • Get a chart showing the river level, or river level anomalies, along the length of the Thames;
  • Get a chart comparing that longitudinal view of the flood with the situation at any previous time;
  • Make a maps mash-up showing river level anomalies across the Thames catchment;
  • Make a personalised chart by adding my own observations, or critical values (‘electrics cut out’, ‘front garden floods’, ‘water comes into house’, …);
  • Make a crowd-sourced flooding community site combining river level data, maps, pictures, observations, and advice (‘sandbags are now available at the village hall’);
  • Make a mash-up combining river level data with precipitation records;
  • Make a flood forecasting tool by combining historical river level, ground-water, and precipitation records with precipitation forecasts.

Most of these things (not the last!) would be a small matter of programming, if the data were available. The Thames Valley is teeming with programmers who would be interested in bashing together a quick web app; or taking part in a larger open-source project to deliver more detailed, more accessible, and more useful flood data. But if we want to do any of those things, we have to pay a licence fee to access the data, and the licence would apparently then require us to get pre-approval from the Environment Agency before releasing any ‘product’. All this for data which is gathered, curated, and managed by a part of the UK government, nominally for the benefit of all.

Admittedly I couldn’t do any of those things this week anyway – too many boxes to carry, too much furniture to prop up. But surely this is a prime example of the need for open data.

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