Mark's Musings

A miscellany of thoughts and opinions from an unimportant small town politician and bit-part web developer

Information doesn’t just want to be free. It needs to be free.


Floods have been in the news a lot recently. We got away with it here in Evesham, where the highest level reached by the Avon just managed to creep over lower sections of Waterside but without closing the road or threatening any buildings. It was a different story elsewhere, of course.
Workman Gardens
If we’d had another flood like the ones last year (and I don’t count the river covering Workman Gardens or Crown Meadow as a flood – these are flood plains, deliberately intended to act as a reservoir for excess water when necessary. Which is why we don’t build anything on them at ground level) then it would, at least, have given people something else to talk about other than the ongoing saga of Abbey Bridge reconstruction. Having originally been scheduled for ten weeks summer, the closure of the bridge was first put back to autumn and then, once closed, extended twice so that we still don’t know when it’s going to be open to traffic again.

Going back to the flooding elsewhere, there have been various media reports today (28 December) about the Prime Minister’s visit to a flood-affected area. This, from the Guardian, is fairly typical. The focus of the reports is the confrontation between David Cameron and an angry villager who felt let down by their own local authority and the Environment Agency. As the Guardian puts it:

She complained that there had been only a couple of hours’ notice of the flood and no chance to get possessions to safety before the converging rivers of the Beult, Tiese and Medway burst their banks.

Now, up to a point, that’s not an entirely valid complaint. The possibility of flooding would have been known well before that, and anyone can look it up on the Environment Agency website if they’re concerned. But I’ll come back to that.

Meanwhile, back here in Evesham, tempers have been fraying over the bridge. Rumours have been flying around the town as to the real reason for the continued delays, ranging from accidental damage to the new concrete to the contractor, Hotchief, going bust. The Evesham Journal posed a set of questions to Hotchief and Worcestershire County Council regarding the delay. Hotchief refused to add anything to a previously issued press release, while WCC referred the Journal back to Hotchief for most of the questions.

The link between the two stories is information. Or, rather, the lack of it. The villagers of Yalding didn’t get warned about flooding until it was almost on them. The townspeople of Evesham still haven’t got satisfactory answers to entirely reasonable questions about what’s happening to our bridge.

Now, it is true that the flood warning data is available on the Environment Agency (EA) website. So maybe it’s not entirely fair to say that the villagers of Yalding didn’t get a good enough warning, when they could have looked it up themselves. But I don’t think that’s a convincing response. Most people don’t necessarily know about the EA website, and even if they do know about it, it isn’t one of the most user-friendly sites out there.

What would have been far more helpful is if the local media could have published the warnings themselves, instead of referring readers back to the EA for them. For example, this page from the Journal would have been more helpful if it had included a detailed description of the relevant warnings instead of just having a fairly obscure link to a search page at the EA.

Unfortunately, they can’t do that, because the EA won’t let them. Or, rather, won’t let them unless they pay for the right to do so. And the amount that the EA charges for flood alert data is a pretty hefty fee. That means that not only media outlets, but also third party website operators are unlikely to be prepared to pay it unless they think they can recoup that in some way.

I’ve previously had a run-in with the EA over my own River Levels website, which I created precisely because I was dissatisfied with the lack of user-friendliness of the EA’s own site. Despite being asked by the EA to close the site, I’ve made the decision to keep it open, at least for now, as I think I have a strong argument for being able to use the information presented on it either at no cost or at minimal cost. I would very much like to be able to do the same for flood data. But that’s an entirely different kettle of fish; the licensing costs of flood data are vastly more expensive than simple level data and the EA is far more protective about the former than the latter.

Back to Abbey Bridge. We’ve been promised more information “in the New Year”, but what we’re going to get is still anyone’s guess. The rumours that Hotchief UK has gone bust are false, but nobody from either WCC or Hotchief seems prepared to actually say so. I suspect that the rumour about damage to the new construction is false too, but without inside information I can’t be certain about that. I do know (because I’ve looked it up extensively on Google) that this type of work always takes longer in winter than summer because cold weather significantly extends the setting time of concrete. That’s probably the main reason why a ten week closure period would probably have been enough in summer, as originally scheduled, but wasn’t long enough in autumn and winter. But it would be nice to have had this confirmed by someone with access to real information.

In Yalding, David Cameron…

…pledged to make flood protection an increasing priority of the government and commiserated with villagers that the floods were “completely awful”.

That’s a fair enough response on the hoof. But when he gets back to Number 10, I’d suggest that the best thing he could do is to address the institutional tendency of government, and government agencies, towards secrecy. Flood defences are a fine idea, but they cost money, take time to construct and don’t necessarily solve the problem. But information can be made free now. More widely disseminated warnings wouldn’t have stopped the water, but it may have given the villagers of Yalding more time to prepare. And making the data open gives people the opportunity to improve the way it’s presented. Given access to the data, I could make a much better flood warning website than the EA. So could lots of people.

Equally, here in Evesham, we need some straight answers. It is true that we’re not suffering anything like as badly as the towns and villages which have been flooded. But the issue is the same: the organisations who have the information are far too reluctant to share it.

I’ve been reluctant to criticise Worcestershire County Council, or Hotchief, up to now because I do realise that the bridge reconstruction is a huge and complex task and there are often are no simple answers to some questions. I also recognise that the individuals who could answer the questions are not necessarily free to do so because they are bound by corporate and council policies. But the longer this goes on, the more obvious it becomes that we need a sea change in attitudes to openness, at all levels of government. It is no longer acceptable that a government agency should seek to restrict access to safety-critical data by imposing a fee for republication. It is no longer acceptable that a local authority should refuse to answer questions about the actions of its own contractors. The people of Yalding should be asking why their local media couldn’t carry detailed flood warnings. The people of Evesham should be pointing out that the Abbey Bridge buck stops at county hall. And all levels of government should listen to them.