Insights article

The case for data standards in urban planning and community engagement

Sebastian Weise
Published: 22/06/2021

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Developers, Planners, or citizens who want to quickly understand and compare a number of development projects, ranked by specific criteria, are currently out of luck. It can be done, but typically involves combing through volumes of documentation from a number of planning portals.  

The structure and navigation of planning portals make it difficult to find specific planning applications. Without a reference number, searches are often unreliable. Once the specific project has been identified, team members then need to compile the information required by hand usually by combing through documents for each planning application, such as the Design and Access Statement. 

In summary this means, with current technologies and planning framework, development proposals cannot be easily assessed or compared. For residents it is hard to clearly see the impacts of development proposals due to the lack of clear parameters and comparisons. Either task can be done by an analyst at significantly higher expense of time and cost. 

These substantial transaction costs are a major barrier for innovation in the sector, and also to project quality as the developments' impact cannot be readily understood. At PlaceChangers we believe this does not have to be the case, and we are working to remove these barriers and improve time and cost efficiencies for planning and development organisations. The drive for standards also needs to be part of the UK governments' vision for a reformed planning system

This article gives you some points how this can make planning information more accessible, transparent, and comparable. As examples from other industries show, open access data standards can be part of the answer for providing a minimum level of consistency and structure to planning processes. 


What is a data standard?

In today’s digital economy, most of the inner workings of the economy or society are now documented in a digital format. In order to make digital data truly useful, however, the data we collect needs to be understood, queryable, and exchangeable. 

Standards are the glue that helps us agree on a minimum set of commonalities in datasets so they can be used in different places by different people. Standardisation has its own benefits. Think back to a time when it was common for every mobile phone maker to produce bespoke charging devices. A law was introduced to compel device makers to use common standards. This means that these days most phones can be charged with an open standard, the USB specification. 

Similarly, “Data standards are the guidelines by which data are described and recorded. In order to share, exchange, combine and understand data, we must standardize the format as well as the meaning.” (USGS)

The UK Office for National Statistics (ONS) documents the landscape of Data Standards. This shows that there is a wide range of different types of standards relating to different aspects of data:

  • Classification Standards
  • Data File Format Standards
  • Data Format Standards
  • Data Management Standards
  • Data Organisation Standards
  • Data Provider Standards
  • Data Sharing Standards
  • Geospatial Data Standards
  • Governance Standards
  • Metadata Standards
  • Statistical Unit Definition Standards 


Why are open standards important?

Standards are an initial step to introduce consistency in sharing data with others. However, just introducing a standard will be insufficient for the standard to be adopted. It takes time to ensure adoption and implementation.  

Standards need to have some level of critical mass to be successful. 

Alliances between key organisations are key to the formation of a standard. 

While people may agree about the need and desirability of a standard there are prerequisites that need to occur to bring a new standard into existence. Firstly a group of experts is established to be the quality assurers for deciding what data is going to be in the standard. 

This process is referred to as data modelling. For example, what information would planners and developers want to store consistently with every planning application? What is desired to be captured may differ in different localities. Unfortunately, for historical reasons, all 380 planning authorities in England have traditionally not had any guidance on standards by the government and therefore information captured is different in many of these authorities. 

In the public sector in particular, standards require a consultation process that defines clear guidelines by which we would want to capture and describe planning application data.  

It is desirable for standards to be open. 

When it comes to open standards, the World Wide Web consortium provides a helpful definition of the key characteristics of an open technical standard: 

  • Transparency: Any documentation in terms of the development of the standard needs to be openly accessible and documented. 
  • Relevance: The standard needs to fit the requirements of end users.
  • Royalty-free: The standard needs to be free to use, without royalty or license payments to a third party. For instance, Microsoft Word files (.docx) are a royalty-free standard these days.

Open standards help with adoption, as barriers such as licenses are removed. 


What standards are relevant to planning? 

The real estate sector, especially planning, does not yet feature consistent data standards, but this is not to say that a wide range of standards are in development! According to a report on data standards in the UK real estate market, the real estate sector features some 180 standards across various parts of the project life cycle. It shows that there is an abundance of standards but little agreement on what can be used cross-industry. 

Not all standards are relevant to planning. Here we list some of the most successful standards that are to provide some examples. The list is not mutually exclusive of course.

Standard

Issuer

What is it?

Industry foundation class (IFC); or ISO 16739-1:2018

Building Smart International

“The IFC schema is a standardized data model that codifies, in a logical way...

  • ...the identity and semantics (name, machine-readable unique identifier, object type or function)...
  • ...the characteristics or attributes (such as material, color, and thermal properties)...
  • ...and relationships (including locations, connections, and ownership)...
  • ...of objects (like columns or slabs)...
  • ...abstract concepts (performance, costing)...
  • ...processes (installation, operations)...
  • ...and people (owners, designers, contractors, suppliers, etc.).” 

Read more on Building Smart International's website.

International Construction Measurement Standard (RDS)

RICS

A standard championed and developed by the body for surveyors, RICS. This is a standard for “benchmarking, measuring and reporting construction project cost”. Read more on the RICS website.

International Land Measurement Standard

RICS

“ILMS is a land measurement standard and a due diligence framework that enables evidence-based assessment of land and property. This global standard is designed to address the current lack of transparency and consistency in recording key land data elements, such as land rights and other interests, when engaged in land acquisition and transfer processes.” Read more on the RICS website.

UK Housing Data Standard

HACT

A standard developed by more than 70 housing associations and software firms. This standard covers a number of use cases in housing associations, including resident feedback, complaints handling, and property hand over. Read more on the HACT website.

General Transit Feed Specification

Google

A standard for the exchange of public transport schedules. It was originally developed in the US, but has been widely adopted by many transit companies to share live transport updates which are consumed on Google Maps for instance. 

Read more on the Google website.

The GTFS standard above are arguable amongst those standards which have the greatest public benefit while it is never much talked about. That is what makes a great standard: one that is taken for granted and widely accepted.


How to gradually adopt standards?

Standards are often incomplete. For example the challenge with IFC formatted building data is that the models don’t always serve other use purposes well, such as the presentation in online maps where texture is desirable. That is why innovators sometimes break away from standards as they tend to develop much more slowly than an individual organisation would. 

Standards take time to implement, especially on pre-existing systems and databases. Reflecting on the efforts to implement the HACT UK Housing Standard, Neil Tamplin, IT manager at Valleys to Coast, commented that their approach was to: “start iteratively implementing the standard into whatever work we’re doing right now. That means looking for opportunities where we might apply the standard in order to generate some learning and build capability.”.


What are the opportunities?

The opportunities from successful standards in the planning system are immense.

  • More accessible and comparable documentation. This could benefit everybody. In our sector it could mean that the impacts of planning proposals can be more readily assessed and such detail provided in public consultations. 
  • Lower transaction costs: According to the British Standards Institute more than one third (37.4%) of UK productivity growth can be attributed to standards. The international adoption of standards can accelerate this trend as cross-border interactions become easier to perform. The introduction of the GTFS enables easy access to transport information in real time, and saves millions of hours every year previously spent looking up timetables manually.
  • Data standards would provide an easier interface with planning departments with potential for much faster approval processes. Singapore is a good example here, where planning departments regularly assess BIM models; in some instances the BIM model is the only thing required for approval. For example, Singapore has implemented a planning approval process that involves uploading a BIM model formatted to certain requirements.
  • Easier ways to switch out core information technology in your business. If data can be ported easily, underlying software can be changed more easily, too.
  • Easier ways to vet tenders and software providers for compliance to organisation requirements.
 

If you also found that article inspiring and like to reach out to us,  get in touch by email or phone.


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