The poor state of hyperlocal data in Northern Ireland

A while ago mentioned he got IFTTT to email him the weather first thing every day. Seemed like a neat idea, but it made me wonder what other things it would be useful to know.

So I started pondering different 'hyperlocal' things that could be sent automatically. There are quite a few possibilities. Things like:

  • Are there any roadworks nearby?
  • Is NI Water going to be turning the water off?
  • Are there any local events on today I should know about?
  • Any crime reports for the area?

There are a lot of possibilities!

It's great that most of this information is already on web sites. Really. I don't want to sound churlish because getting it online is a huge step.

But it's a tiny, tiny step from there to making it usable by computers. If you want others to be able to propagate your information (and that's an interesting question itself), you need to provide it in a way that can be processed automatically.

The problems range from the daft (Carrickfergus Borough Council pays people to update the News area on its site, but there's no RSS feed) to the understandable (some sites don't have it because it's extra work+cost to get set up when the developer/designer creates the site) to the utterly obtuse (PSNI crime statistics are available in XML, but you have to manually go to the site, click a button to ask it to generate the XML, and have it give you a unique URL for this one download - try automating that!)

But another problem is just understanding the data in the XML format. RSS is a simple format, and opinions differ on how to represent something like two weeks of roadworks. Are there start date and end date tags describing this (from a different namespace)? Does the title say it (and is it in a way I can parse)? Is it 2 weeks from the pubDate? Or does the pubDate relate to the date of the announcement, not the date of the disruption? The problem is not that there's no way to describe it in the XML, the problem is that there are a variety of ways and no consistency. How is my wee program supposed to know which way a site has chosen?

All of which has me wondering if I should just leave it to Google to do...

Tags: Norn Iron
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