Tag Archives: equality

What is the population question?

The population debate rumbles on. David Attenborough crashed back into the debate with a pretty crass set of remarks about not sending food aid to places struck by famine, earning lots of impassioned responses. The activist-comedian Robert Newman wrote an interesting piece pointing out that population growth is tailing off so claiming it really isn’t the issue, and so it continues, round and around.

At the Green Party autumn conference, I attended an early morning panel discussion on population. We heard from a speaker from Population Matters, who argued that our impact on the rest of nature is a function of our population, our affluence (and inequality) and our technology. I explored this “IPAT” formula a bit in my previous blog entry. Then Sebastian Power made more or less the same case as Newman – that we suffer from (in his words) “rich white men” consuming too much, not too many people. He suggested that talk of population is really a way of blaming poor, black women from the global south for problems created by rich white men from the global north, and that we should ignore population. Sebastian offered to send references for his claims, which I asked him for after the panel, but I’m waiting for him to reply so I won’t get into his arguments. But I do want to reflect on the way in which he and the speaker from Population Matters seemed to talk at cross purposes.

The problem is, what question are we discussing when we talk about population? I think Power, Newman and others look back and make it a question of blame, but I want to look to the future.

Is population growth to blame for our environmental problems?

This is an interesting area for discussion. It is pretty obvious that poor, black women in the global south aren’t to blame for climate change. I think Newman is right to argue that, to date, “the problem facing a population of 7 billion is not too many people crowding too small a piece of land, but too few people owning too much world.”

It’s a bit of a simplification – there are plenty of examples of materially poorer civilisations collapsing, and of poorer societies today harming their natural environment. But of course to make it less of a simplification, we have to talk about technology and affluence (and inequality), as per the IPAT formula, to explore whether it’s possible that better technology and a better economy and political system could avoid these problems, making population an irrelevance.

Who is then to blame is a further interesting question. Are we Brits all to blame for our excessive consumerism, or is our ethical agency diminished by marketing and social psychology that makes it difficult for us to resist? This is a big question that would require a lengthy tangent into ethics, psychology, sociology and political theory. Suffice to say, it isn’t so simple as saying that we automatically blame people when we consider their environmental impacts to be relevant.

That said, there is another question.

Can the earth support ten billion moderately wealthy people?

This is the question I explored in depth in my previous blog entry, and which I want to return to.  I’m not interested in blame. I want to look to the future and consider whether the better world I aspire to is possible. It might be possible, with current technology, for seven billion people to live within the earth’s limits if we all converged on the average global income, and the quality of life that implies. But that’s a pretty low income! If the world were really equitable, if everybody had a similar and decent quality of life, could the earth sustain ten billion of us, or indeed seven billion?

To answer this question, we need to look at our best technology, our most radical politics, our most successful behaviour change policies, and ask whether they can meet the challenges we face. In my previous blog post I looked at whether they could:

  • reduce our greenhouse gas emissions very radically in a very short space of time, such that ten billion people could attain a decent standard of living
  • reduce our overall resource consumption to a “one planet” level, when almost no developed country is anywhere near that level, even the widely admired greener countries like Sweden

I concluded that a very large population makes both tasks a good deal harder. Stephen Emmott, in his very readable but flawed book 10 billion, takes this to the conclusion that “we’re fucked”, largely because he is pessimistic about the likelihood of the right behaviour change policies ever being enacted by democratic governments, and because he sees no problem-free saviour technologies. The flaws lie in his exaggerated use of statistics, but it is still worth a read because of the range of real problems he covers and his analysis of our chances of tackling them. Newman laughs at Emmott’s “we’re fucked” conclusion in his article, but offers no rebuttal.

There are many complicated aspects to the question of whether the earth can support ten billion moderately wealthy people. We most often hear about climate change, and the bold assertion that with the right technology and politics everything will be fine. I want to briefly look at just two wider aspects – feeding ourselves, and our consumerism – to illustrate how much more complicated it is.

Feeding ten billion

One absolutely massive challenge is feeding the world. Very often, I see people point out that we already produce enough food to feed everyone, that the problem is the unfair distribution. Too much is wasted by rich people, too much land is used to produce feedstock for cattle to give rich people burgers, too much land is used to produce biofuels and luxury crops, all while too many poor people go hungry.

That’s probably all correct to a point, but it ignores all the problems this “adequate” farming system has created and that would continue if we were to move to a more equitable system of agriculture.

Half of the world’s tropical rainforests are gone, often cleared to provide agricultural land. Large areas of grassland previously home to wildlife, from our wildflower meadows in Britain to wide open prairies in the USA, are now chemical-soaked monocultures for agriculture. Can we reverse the massive loss of biodiversity, both globally (e.g. the 30 per cent decline in biodiversity in the last forty years), and nationally (e.g. in the UK the 60 per cent of species that have declined despite all our conservation efforts) while feeding the world?

To take one example, it might be possible to stop a lot of deforestation if we massively reduced our meat consumption, possibly by getting everyone to go vegetarian. But is that even remotely likely to happen on a large scae in the next few decades?

Work by the Stockholm Environment Institute offers more problems for feeding ourselves. A paper published in the peer-reviewed journal Ecology and Society quantified nine major ecological challenges we face, including those I have already touched on. While feeding ten billion with a good diet, the paper suggests we would also have to:

  • reduce the amount of nitrogen we fix in the soils for agriculture by about two thirds, bearing in mind that artificial means of fixing nitrogen were among the key innovations in the “green revolutions” that enabled us to feed so many people
  • no more than double our freshwater usage while expanding irrigation for agriculture, both to grow food crops and others like cotton for clothing

These are global perspectives. There are also more local issues, for example in water stressed regions like south east England we are already beyond the point of sustainable water use, and it is difficult to accommodate the growing population even with technological and behaviour changes.

With all of these challenges, population becomes an important factor. Ten billion people means twice as great a challenge as five billion. Can we feed five or ten billion people sustainably – addressing all of those concerns – even if we have a more equal world, with less food waste and damaging biofuels? I’m not sure, but I think people who want to say “population doesn’t matter” need to answer these questions.

Keeping ten billion people comfortable

The more you look at the impacts of our civilisation, the harder this all becomes.

Take mobile phones, computers, TVs and cars. Just mining the tin for current demand has devastating social and environmental consequences. Friends of the Earth are pragmatically calling for better practice, but are we likely to persuade five or ten billion people to move away from a disposable, consumerist culture?

Even if we did, providing ten billion people with durable mobile phones will necessarily mean twice the amount of tin mining as for five billion. Then there are all the other components, with all the other raw materials.

As I wrote at the start, considering the environmental consequences of the global poor becoming consumers doesn’t mean we blame them, nor that we blame them more than ourselves, or those in positions of political and economic power.

The difference between realism and utopia

Underlying many of these questions is a tension between the utopian vision – what is possible in theory if we transform behaviour, economics, politics and technology at every level – and what we might learn from the past few decades of intransigence and environmental damage.

Maybe it is theoretically possible to address all our problems, but is that likely to happen? What do we think is likely to happen in the next few decades, and how do we best shape our future and adapt to it starting with the current reality? How can we continue to give hope that a utopia is possible, while fighting for realistic steps towards it and accommodating our vision within the democratic process? Unless you are a person of rigid principle, unwilling to engage in democratic politics, can we ignore population when considering those questions?

So what?

Those questions bring me to the most compelling argument against the “let’s talk about population” position that I heard in the panel at the Green Party conference. It was, essentially, “so what?” What policies can we enact that will really change this?

A population of seven billion is locked in. Even if you take out net immigration, the population of the UK is still growing in spite of some of the best family planning services in the world. The ONS found in the 2011 census that natural change accounted for 44 per cent of our population growth. Making it harder for people to drive their car while improving public transport is one thing, but trying to stop them having a child is quite different.

At this point I stray into areas where I lack the expertise and professional experience that I feel I have brought to the discussion so far. I suspect there are ways we could improve family planning and sex education in the UK, for example, but it’s not an area I know a great deal about. So I don’t have a strong answer to the “so what?” question,

What I am convinced of is that population is relevant, as well as affluence, inequality and technology. It is wrong to close down consideration of population.

You know, people aren’t stupid. Most of the arguments I have gone through in this blog entry are pretty intuitive and widely understood. Declaring that population is simply irrelevant makes you look like you have buried your head in the sand to protect an ideological position, unmoved by facts.

It would be much better to acknowledge that population is part of the equation, and to then explore the best responses to our problems that we can press for in a democratic society and that, we hope, reflect our values of ecology and equality.

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

On migration, population and ecology

Green Party leader Natalie Bennett recently took a strong stance on migration, warning of the dangers that the other parties risk when stoking up public anger about population. She rightly suggested that we shouldn’t blame migrants for problems with the NHS, schools, housing and jobs. Instead, we should be concerned about the failure of misguided economic policies that have caused these problems.

In response, three members of the Green Party wrote a letter to the Guardian saying that they, and many other Greens, are concerned about migration as well as the nasty rhetoric. The authors of the letter wrote:

Many of her party’s supporters are as concerned as the rest of the public about a high level of net immigration, mainly because it is a major contributor to population growth. This adds to the uphill task of protecting our environment and moving the economy to an ecologically sustainable one.

A long list of Greens replied with “dismay” at this letter, and Adam Ramsay wrote his own letter accusing the three authors of the first letter of “demonstrating an outdated 70s environmentalism obsessed with population while ignoring vast inequalities in consumption levels”.

The debate continued with a reply from some members in Devon, who countered:

To be concerned with the impact that world population rising to 9 billion people has on resource availability, pollution, climate change etc is not to be locked in a 1970s time warp. It may have ceased to be the number one issue for some greens, but in terms of the long-term damage to our planet as a habitat for all species, it remains at the forefront.

I want to address this point alone, because it hits a controversial nerve in the Green community. Does population really matter? Should we restrict migration to protect our environment?

I should say that I am not an expert on migration or population, but I have worked for seven years in the connected areas of housing and environment policy. The three authors of the first letter ask us to “read the statistics” in order to pursue “open and honest debate”. I quite agree! So that is what I hope to do in this article.

Does population matter at the global level?

One common starting point is to view our impact on the rest of the natural world as a simple function of our affluence, our technology and our population. We can bring human society more into harmony with the rest of nature by wanting less, improving our technology to get more out of the resources we consume, and by reducing our population.

Life is never quite that simple, of course. How much each person impacts on the rest of the natural world is also a function of our political and economic systems. The “population doesn’t matter” lobby suggest that it is inequality and rampant consumerism that matters, not the total population. They seem to suggest that if we were all more equal and all reduced our impacts, without those rich bankers trashing the planet, then it would be perfectly possible to accommodate nine or ten billion people and lead healthy, happy lives.

So can we really ignore the population factor in these equations? I don’t think we can.

In my previous job at BioRegional I worked a lot with ecological and carbon footprinting, particularly drawing on the technical work of the Global Footprint Network, the Stockholm Environment Institute and the UK Government’s Committee on Climate Change.  Their work tells us that if everyone lived as the average Briton does we would need three planets’ resources to sustain us, and ten times the capacity of the planet to absorb our greenhouse gas emissions.

But it’s not just mega rich bankers in mansions that are living unsustainable lifestyles. Yes, there are vast inequalities in consumption levels, but we are all consuming too much.

One of the projects I worked on at BioRegional was the BedZED eco village in south west London, built to high standards and designed to make it easy for residents to adopt lower impact lifestyles.  Through a monitoring project I worked on, we found that after seven years living there the working class (social tenancy) residents were still living unsustainably. If everyone in the world lived as they did, we would need 2.6 planets’ worth of resources. Their greenhouse gas emissions were also far above a sustainable level.

Blaming it all on consumerism, or assuming we can quite easily get to a sustainable level with a high standard of living, is just burying your head in the sand. If you work in this area for any amount of time, you quickly realise that reducing our environmental impacts to a truly sustainable level is really hard.

Joel Cohen, Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Columbia University, has compiled lots of research by other academics on the question of how many people the earth can support. Most estimates were in the range of one to sixteen billion. What would those different populations mean? The Worldwatch Institute has estimated that we could sustain a global population of 2.1 billion with a “high income” of $36,000 per capita (lower than the US average), or a population of 13.6 billion with a “low income” of $1,230 per capita. It’s worth reflecting on the changes we’d need in the British economy to enable 13.6 billion people to live on an income that is only 5% of a current UK living wage.

Our global population may well peak within this century, rising to 10 billion. If this happens we would each have an allowance of less than a tonne of carbon dioxide. This figure comes from unpublished work done while I was working at BioRegional. As with much of the detail on climate change it is subject to a huge degree of uncertainty – some would say it’s overly pessimistic, others think we should already have negative carbon footprints (i.e. we should be zero carbon and start taking greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere).

Let’s assume your allowance is in fact under one tonne, as per that work undertaken by colleagues at BioRegional. Let’s also assume that we make big strides towards a renewable electricity grid, and our technology improves as much as we might reasonably expect over the next fifty years. Well that one tonne isn’t even enough to cover the greenhouse gases required for your share of our country’s basic infrastructure – that is, if we divide up the resources needed to run our hospitals, schools and trains, and to build our roads, homes and council offices between everyone so we carry an equal share. It certainly doesn’t leave you with any of your allowance for heating your home and taking the occasional holiday to Cornwall by train. Read this study of London’s footprint to see what I mean. Sustainable lifestyles with a global population of 10 billion, without some incredible new technology, would be hugely challenging and materially impoverished.

If the population stabilised at 5 billion, our allowance would rise to around two tonnes, making it conceivable that with improved technology we could take that one annual British holiday – still materially far poorer than the average Briton today. In terms of other ecological impacts, the consumption of other natural resources would most likely leave almost no space for wildlife and wilderness.

It’s also relevant to know when the population stabilises. If it were to stabilise tomorrow, then fall consistently for the rest of the decade, that suggests a far smaller release of greenhouse gases and a far smaller consumption of natural resources in the 21st century than a population stabilising in 2050 and remaining high to the end of the century.

Now, it is a big step to go from recognising that population is relevant to then advocating population reduction policies. But we have to face up to two truths: first, that the larger the population, the greater the challenge our technology and politics must overcome; and second, that at some point, without radically new technology, a human population surpasses the sustainable carrying capacity of the planet.

Is migration relevant to this?

The problem for the authors of the first letter (showing concern about migration) is that it clearly shouldn’t concern us whether somebody lives in the UK or Romania when tackling global environmental problems.

If they have the same lifestyle, it makes no difference to the atmosphere where their carbon emissions arise (and indeed much of our impact arises from global supply chains anyway).

It’s possible that migrants move from less affluent countries to the UK, and become more affluent than they would otherwise have been. So their environmental impact rises, making the task of “protecting our environment” more difficult. But I believe it is unjust to move to an ecologically sustainable economy through nationalistic discrimination. We shouldn’t say “you can’t come and enjoy our lifestyles”. We have to find an equitable way for us all to enjoy a decent quality of life within the planet’s constraints. The Green Party’s longstanding commitment to the principle of contraction and convergence  would be undermined if we sought to protect our own affluence and suppress that of others.

Does population matter at the local level?

I’m going to take Greater London as my “local” scale, only because it’s a region I’m knowledgeable about, I live here, have been involved in politics in the city and have suffered the effects of our dysfunctional housing market. It’s also an interesting case study because the population is in the midst of an unprecedented boom.

If we were to assume high net international migration – lots of people moving from abroad into London – this does present dilemmas. I will explore one  local environmental dilemma – the impact of housing on other species’ habitats – though there are many others such as waste, water and air pollution. I’m not going to explore the impact of population on social policy, such as the provision of health care and housing.

I wrote in a previous blog post about the role of migration in London’s housing market in order to debunk the idea that London is sucking people from the rest of the UK. It isn’t. But international migration has been a major contributor to the city’s rapid growth in the past decade. This chart shows that two factors are pushing up our population: more people move from overseas into London than the other way around; and many more “new households” are formed (births, divorces, etc.) than are dissolved (deaths, moving in together, etc.). It also shows that many more people move out from London to the rest of the UK than the other way around – Londoners are fleeing the capital!


One stark conclusion I drew in my previous blog post is that, if the population keeps rising like this, we simply have to build more homes. Read the post if you don’t believe me.

Now, the last assessment of land to build homes on carried out in 2009, looking in all of Greater London’s nooks and crannies for brownfield land, allowing a tiny bit of development on greenfield land and assuming optimal urban densities, only found space for around 37,000 homes per year at a stretch. But the Green Party on the Assembly has already found that these assessments don’t take proper account of the habitats on brownfield land, which can be among the most biodiverse sites in the city. Green roofs and walls are nice, but they cannot compensate for the loss of all habitats for all species. So building 37,000 homes a year will already have a negative impact on our local environment.

The Mayor of London now estimates that we need an extra 40,000 homes to be built every year to keep up with the growing population. Our failure to get anywhere near this in the past decade has led to rising overcrowding. Darren Johnson has dug out estimates that we would need to build 44,500 a year if supply was our only way to stabilise prices. So if we want to build another 7,500 a year on top of the 37,000 we might have space for where will they all go? We can either build at higher densities, or we can encroach further on other species’ habitats, including greenfield sites.

So it may be uncomfortable, but the fact is that migration matters when it comes to protecting our local environment. If we had zero net migration, or if we had a lower birth rate, it would be much easier to accommodate ourselves with the rest of the natural world in Greater London.

However, as with global migration, we have to consider justice when deciding what we do with this fact. Do we restrict entry to the UK to protect our local environment? Or do we open our borders completely and accommodate whoever chooses to live here?

We also need to think beyond our local boundaries. To take Romania as an example, being topical because the rules restricting migration to the UK are about to be relaxed, what habitat impacts in Romania are avoided when people move from Pitești to London? Might it be easier to develop an ecologically sustainable economy with a growing population in Pitești than in London? Or is the reverse true? Perhaps it would be better if people move to London, a compact city with falling car usage, or perhaps it would be better if migrants from all corners of the world settled in parts of the UK with large quantities of empty housing? These questions go far beyond my expertise of Romania or any other country, but they shouldn’t be forgotten!

Population matters, but migration doesn’t (much)

My own take on this, going by the facts and the Green Party’s guiding principles, is as follows: population definitely matters, at both a global and local level. Some may want to dismiss this as “outdated 70s environmentalism”, but I have arrived at this conclusion after working with the latest understanding of ecological and carbon footprinting.  There is nothing racist or xenophobic about it. Higher global populations make an ecologically sustainable global society much more difficult, and past a certain point impossible.

But migration shouldn’t really be a major environmental concern at a global level because it probably makes a negligible difference. Insofar as migration increases affluence, this is not a just reason to oppose migration.

At a local level, environmental pressures shouldn’t be so great a concern that, taken alone, they wholly validate the public’s concerns about migration. Pressures on habitats, and perhaps on water, waste management and pollution, are major considerations that we cannot simply dismiss. But if I am honest, at this point I have exhausted my expertise. I instinctively feel that we should be able to accommodate the free movement of labour within a more equal Europe, and to reconcile mass migration with any resulting local environmental pressures. But I am not certain that this is possible, nor am I confident about how to balance these competing demands on public policy.

Finally, this is just my view on one aspect of wide and complicated debates. I’d encourage you to read and think about this subject more, and discuss it. For example, here is an interesting article suggesting that liberal migration policies help people affected by climate change to adapt. Here’s another by Violeta Vajda reminding us that immigration is about human experiences as well as bare facts. I think it’s a shame that the tone of debates such as this can quickly turn nasty, with people seeking to shut down debate and insult each other rather than to seek understanding and consensus.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

My politics of ecology and justice

Following my previous blog post about the Young Greens and lots of discussion with friends and fellow party members, I want to set out clearly why ecology defines my philosophical basis rather than social and environmental justice.

To avoid misunderstandings from the outset, I think social and environmental justice are important, but they don’t define my political philosophy.

The new philosophical basis of the Green Party says:

A system based on inequality and exploitation is threatening the future of the planet on which we depend, and encouraging reckless and environmentally damaging consumerism…. The Green Party is a party of social and environmental justice, which supports a radical transformation of society for the benefit of all, and for the planet as a whole.

This sounds great! What could be wrong with that? I hope I might persuade you why I don’t think it is quite right, or at least encourage more thought and debate about political philosophy and the precise meaning of different terms. Continue reading

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Green doesn’t need to mean gentrification

Jim Gleeson has an interesting blog entry about the consequences of making a city more liveable. In short, there is a danger that making an area more liveable can price out lower income people. By reducing air pollution and generally improving the local environment in more deprived areas,  richer people will start to move in displacing the people who should have benefitted.

His prescription is more housing supply to accompany environmental improvements. But we need to think a bit more carefully about this to get the medicine right for places like London.

As he points out, the economic benefits of making an area more desirable will largely go to existing home owners and landlords as the value of the land, and therefore the rent they can charge, increases. Lower income people will be forced to move, presumably (according to Jim’s argument) to less liveable areas. Council and housing association tenants who are secure in their homes gain a nicer environment, but they have no direct stake in the increased value of the land their homes sit on.

Building more homes as Jim suggests could help to keep prices down, meaning less of a windfall gain for land owners and possibly more stable rents. But in practice, due to London’s policy of “mixed and balanced communities”, deprived areas tend to see council housing demolished and replaced overwhelmingly with housing for sale in order to “balance out” the social “mix” of people in the area. There’s no way anyone with an average income and average wealth would be able to buy a new flat in most areas of London on the open market.

The flats will be bought by wealthier-than-average people, and probably many then let on the private market, with a good number of those subsidised by housing benefit. So while more supply might dampen the economic consequences of making an area more liveable, and while it might spread the wealth a little more widely, the economic benefits will still mostly go to wealthier people.

You would need to increase house building across London to 50% higher than Boris Johnson’s aspirational target just to stabilise prices. It would be interesting to know whether there is enough spare land and available development finance to raise supply levels high enough in order to gradually reduce prices so that the benefits of new homes would be principally accrued by ordinary Londoners.

But there are other ways in which we can reduce unequal access to nice local environments while maintaining or reducing levels of economic inequality. Housing supply is undoubtedly part of the picture, but policies need to be a bit more sophisticated to achieve this aim.

One simple policy would be to try to build lots more council housing in wealthier areas that already enjoy high environmental quality. That would require a government to reinstate an adequate housing capital budget; the new budget for London in 2011-15 is two-thirds lower than than the budget for 2008-11!

Another would be to ensure all the new housing is put into the control of a Community Land Trust, which owns the land and so can keep homes permanently affordable. Members of the Trust, usually a co-operative, use any rise in land values to benefit the local community and not private individuals. To date, there is only one example of this in London – Coin Street. Despite valiant efforts and credible plans from various other communities, the HCA, GLA and government have done little to make this concept happen.

A third more radical solution – radical as in dealing with the root of the problem (from radix, Latin for ‘root’) – would be to bring back taxation on land. Winston Churchill and Lloyd George both tried, and failed, to do this at the turn of the 20th century. They were blocked by wealthy landowners in the Lords, whose ancestors got rid of them as the power of the Crown diminished.

We have a tax system that raises income off hard work and consumer goods, and that leaves people to rake in huge gains from increases in land values and capital gains with comparatively little or no tax. If we brought back “schedule A” taxes, land values wouldn’t rise so much, the benefits could be clawed back for investment in affordable housing, all local residents could therefore benefit including council tenants, and people might be encouraged to invest their savings in productive stocks and shares rather than dead bricks and mortar.

These solutions have all been applied in the not-too-distant past. But as with the debate over the National Planning Policy Framework, they seem to get overlooked in simplistic debates over false choices like “housing supply vs. conservation”.

Jim’s post is much more sophisticated, looking at the relationship between environmental improvements and the housing market. But his prescription – more supply – needs to be equally sophisticated to ensure that we deliver environmental and social justice side by side.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

Why map data sometimes matters

I was contacted recently by a parent campaigning for a local school to ensure its admissions policy is properly applied. Over-subscribed schools like this one are a common source of frustration and worry up and down the country.

Here’s the rub. Which of these two homes would you say is closer to the school, and therefore more likely to secure a place?  By the way, I’m not sure that the location on the left actually is within the catchment area, it’s just a place I randomly chose to illustrate the coming point…

Routes to the school from two locations using CloudMade maps, the home on the right wins by 500m.

Parents at the location on the right were told they were too far from the school. The method they use to calculate safe distances to the school actually suggests that the location on the right is farther away than the location on the left!


Because they are calculating distances using a model that measures the distance as if you are driving a car. If you try that, you get a totally different result:

Routes plotted for cars to get to the school, the home on the left wins by 400m.

The school’s model uses the Ordnance Survey ITN maps, and apparently doesn’t account for this short footpath at the end of one road. It was pedestrianised 25 years ago.

Happily OpenStreetMap has all the relevant data (and a few minor corrections the parent, Jasia, pointed out to me) so anybody can plot the route to prove the point.

Incidentally, if you fancy showing your support for this campaign download this letter to the governors, sign it and send it to the address at the top of the document.

Tagged , , , , , , ,

Are minor points of interest poisonous?

Coverage of “points of interest” in OpenStreetMap is a point of pride for many mappers. Our maps have much richer detail than commercial competitors, they provide endless handy data for mashups, and as a consequence have been a big focus of mapping party efforts in London.

But should we really be so keen? I’m not so comfortable for two reasons.

First, how up-to-date is our data? I’ve recently re-surveyed my local area in minute detail and found several takeaways, shops and banks that have closed down or changed hands. I’ve also discovered that we have very poor coverage of cycle parking in Southwark following two years of massive expansion by the council.

How likely is it that these are being regularly checked and updated? I suspect “not very likely at all”, and have therefore decided to delete all my points of interest in my local area that I’m not confident anyone will update. I mostly deleted minor shops, especially those like hairdressers that change a lot and that aren’t very important to know about. I’ve left all the amenities like banks, post offices, cycle parking and pubs.

My second concern is that the completeness and up-to-dateness will vary according to the number of active and nutty OpenStreetMappers in the area. And that tends to translate to affluent areas.

In their useful paper on the “completeness” of OpenStreetMap, Muki Haklay and Claire Ellul issue this rather stark warning:

“The large number of contributors for applications such as OSM or Google Map Maker might convey the false impression that [they] represent a real democratisation of geographical information collection, whereas the reality is that these many voices are coming from the more affluent and naturally empowered sections of society. This cacophony is likely to be silencing the voices of the marginalised and excluded even further.”

As I have auto-traced buildings in deprived parts of Southwark from Ordnance Survey StreetView tiles and sporadic re-surveying, I have noticed the very patchy and thin coverage of points of interest in those areas. Probably half the churches and schools are marked with nodes (no ways describing sites and building, though I’ve tried to draw them in) whilst the rest are missing entirely; occasionally there is a smattering of takeaways and convenience stores.

A comparison of allotments with an open dataset from the Greater London Authority reveals a similar pattern (previewed above). Most of those we have missed are in deprived areas. I’ll be revealing more work on completing our allotment coverage soon, courtesy of some help from friends and contacts in various local/regional government departments.

Muki and Claire suggest public agencies should step in to improve coverage in deprived areas, but that requires a high level of committment to OSM from those agencies. Currently we are in the very early stages on this front in the UK.

Given all of this, I would be interested to hear what other OpenStreetMap contributors and followers think. Should we bother with minor points of interest like hairdressers and takeaways until public agencies step in? Is it better to leave them out to avoid a database full of out-of-date information that only increases inequalities of coverage?

Tagged , , , , ,

The CrapAnalysis Alliance strikes again

The self-appointed TaxPayers’ Alliance have published a shoddy demolition of The Spirit Level, which kicks off by claiming that “the best way of getting rich is by satisfying or anticipating the wants of other people”.

Apparently they are ignorant of advertising (shaping and creating the wants of other people), which is projected to reach £531bn globally by next year. That’s roughly the same amount that the UK Government brings home in tax revenue. Or to take a specific example, research from 2008 suggested that American drugs companies spend roughly twice as much on advertising as they do on research – getting rich by promoting cash-cow drugs instead of researching much-needed medicines.

Apparently they missed the collapse of the global financial system in the past few years, which was triggered by companies getting rich through risky trading practices far distanced from the wants of people outside the financial services sector. Those that were affected first – home owners with “sub prime” mortgages – were exploited by irresponsible people getting rich off their wants in an underregulated market.

Apparently they are ignorant of the way in which the business world actually works. Take this compendium of Microsoft’s dirty tricks, for example, which shows a company (and one man in particular) getting filthy rich by distorting and abusing another poorly regulated market. Yes, they satisfied the wants of a great many people, but if that was your only measure then other companies would have done equally well if not better. But they were crushed.

I’m not saying all businesses are evil, just that apparently the TaxPayers’ Alliance are talking out of their arse again.

Tagged , , ,

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 67 other followers