Government Wastes £2.4m Building Cycle Route Planner Instead of Linking to for Free

CycleStreets offers UK wide Cycle Route Planning

CycleStreets offers UK wide cycle route planning; it has received a few thousand pounds of public money.

There has been a free online cycle route planner for Cambridge since the Cambridge Cycling Campaign Journey Planner was launched in 2006. The cycling campaign’s system has now become a nationwide project, CycleStreets, which suggests cycle friendly routes with users given options for either an “unhurried” or “quick” ride. In mid-2009 a UK government service, made available via the website, was launched which enables people to find cycle friendly routes in eighteen specific areas of the UK. Whereas the government website only covers a small handful of selected locations CycleStreets covers the whole of the UK limited only by the quality of Open Street Map data for the area. Personally I think that CycleStreets is a better service than the government system, not just because of its much wider coverage but because of its extensive set of features including integration with a national photomap which allows people to see photos taken along the route (as an alternative the site also integrates with Google Earth).

Recently I used mySociety’s freedom of information website to ask the Department of Transport to release information about how much their cycle journey planner cost. I found out that one of biggest differences between CycleStreets and Transport Direct services is that one has cost me and other UK taxpayers, just a couple of thousand pounds whereas the other has cost us a couple of million. CycleStreets has had a grant for £3,200 from Cambridge City Council, a small grant from “cycling Scotland” for version of the site for Edinburgh. The response to my freedom of information request revealed that the “Find a cycle route” feature on the Transport Direct website will have cost us £2,383,739 (£2.4 million pounds) by the end the current financial year, and there are plans to spend a further £400,000 on adapting what has been produced to provide route planner for a Cycling for Schools programme. The figures given in the response can be used to calculate that each cycle route planned using the government website has cost the taxpayer about £57.

The Transport Direct Cycle Planner Will Cost £2.3m

The Transport Direct Cycle Planner Will Cost £2.4m.

I find these figures shocking and astonishing. It is an astronomical amount. The Department of Transport have spent over seven hundred times as much public money on their project as has been spent on Cyclestreets. Even if we add salaries for CycleStreets’ core team of Simon Nuttall and Martin Lucas-Smith (who don’t work full time on the project) the government website has cost in the order of a hundred times more than independent offering. I am regularly appalled at the poor value which government at all levels gets when it is spending our money; this is a particularly bad example.

Why did the government decided to spend millions building their own system, when they could have simply linked to the existing CycleStreets service, or got much better value for public money by working with CycleStreets? I think there are major cultural problems within government when it comes to working with small companies (particularly very small ones employing one, two or even no people). Government is simply much more comfortable handing over millions of pounds to an IT consulting company, in the case of ATOS Origin, than it would be dealing with the likes of CycleStreets.

The £2.4 million spent on the government cycle route planner is just part of a much bigger “Transport Direct” project which cost £55 million between 2003 and 2007. The rational for spending this kind of public money on the website is very questionable, not only given the existence of CycleStreets, but in light of Google’s move into the public transport with its Google Transit service which already offers walking, driving, and perhaps some train directions in the UK and covers cycling and a broad range of public transport options in many locations in the USA.

I think there is a role for government, in collecting and making mapping and transport data available, I think that things like a map of the “Integrated Transport Network” including road names ought be maintained by the government as it is a valuable resource for many companies, local councils and innovators who want to build useful tools using it. Last week it was excellent to see data get released by the Ordnance Survey in a major step forward for opening up government held data. While I understand CycleStreets doesn’t directly use any Ordinance Survey data the release of the OS data is already helping improve the Open Street Map coverage, and through that is improving CycleStreets. It would be great if where the government has influence over transport providers such as regulated and subsidised train and bus companies if they required them to freely provided information on their services in a format which would make it easy for anyone who wanted to to build systems making the information accessible. I don’t think it is really necessary for government to get into the business of competing with those offering existing services.

One key question which I asked in my FOI request was: “What is happening to information which the Department of Transport has been paying “Cycle City Guides” to collect?” I have been told this information includes details of if there is a cycle lane on a road and if there are streetlights. Surely if this information has been collected at public expense there ought be no reason it is not made freely available to anyone who wants to use it. Via my FOI request I have established that the cycling information is, like other government information, being reviewed with a view to release and the decision ought be made by November 2010. Interestingly while the Freedom of Information Act exempts information which is due to be published, it doesn’t exempt information which is being considered for publication so it might be possible to short-cut this process with a further FOI request.

In terms of the data being collected, some information is being obtained from local authorities. The fact “Cycle City Guides” are being contracted record things like which roads are lit, and what road markings (and traffic / parking regulations) are in-force in a particular location suggests local government doesn’t have its own comprehensive record of such things. In Cambridge the most detailed information on what is technically allowed or not on the city’s roads is available not from the County Council, the Highways Authority, but has been compiled by a local Freedom of Information expert Ben Harris. The role of central government ought be to define open standards which local councils could use to record, and share, such information. The systems would help not only find out what the law is, and aid those producing transport tools, but might also help the democratic process open up the process of deciding the rules by which we run the city. If the process of consulting on changes could be brought online large sums of money could be saved.

Other examples of public money being used to duplicate services already being provided to a better standard and cheaper include Cambridgeshire County Council’s current proposals to build its own version of FixMyStreet for reporting problems. Huge sums of public money were spent by the BBC on their Democracy Live project, but it doesn’t really provide much more than was made available already by either the BBC or mySociety’s TheyWorkForYou (The expensive BBC option still doesn’t allow embedding of Parliamentary video on sites like mine). Imagine if in those cases too the value which would have been obtained for public money if it had been spent in collaboration with, rather than competing against, the existing offerings.

This kind of thing doesn’t just happen in internet and technology related areas. In North Cambridge voluntary organisations and a charitable company which had been helping parents with young children in the area were negatively affected when the state heavy handily imposed New Labour’s inconsistently and unreliably funded Sure Start centres; these didn’t do as well as, and weren’t as attractive to parents as, the independent services and they cost more both in terms of public money as well as in terms of bureaucracy and people’s time. Again the government did its own thing rather than working with what was already in existence.

Others’ Citing The FOI Request

As a side effect of making my request in public via WhatDoTheyKnow before I even had the chance to write this article about the response to the FOI request I had made myself, it had already been picked up by others. The response has been noted in the Wikipedia article on Transport Direct and Martin Lucas-Smith from CycleStreets cited it at a hustings for Cambridge’s parliamentary candidates from the main parties on the 6th of April while drawing attention to the fact that working with community groups, non-profits (CycleStreets is a non-profit) and similar organisations can provide the government with good value for money. He made this point after all the candidates had suggested that due to public money being in very short supply over the next few years, voluntary and charitable organisations ought expect cuts in funding.

24 responses to “Government Wastes £2.4m Building Cycle Route Planner Instead of Linking to for Free”

  1. Excellent post, as usual, but very depressing.

    And another thing: I’ve just planned a cycle journey in Cambridge on Transport Direct and it’s trying to send me the wrong way up a one-way street. (It evidently thinks that Catharine Street is two-way all the way from the Co-op up to St Philip’s Road, rather than just to the Co-op car park.) I’m guessing this could be because their links are tied to OS TOIDs, which will exist at junctions but not often elsewhere. Understandably, perhaps, they mightn’t want to introduce new nodes otherwise the network will get out of sync with the ITN. I’ve not read through the FoI papers yet but this seems like a flawed design: I would guess that the cycle network is full of all sorts of oddities like this.

  2. This is very sad – what a waste of money! Presumably whoever provided the consultancy or whatever was needed to approve the DoT site will be reprimanded.

    As a quick `click test’ I wondered if the DoT could suggest improvements to my weekend Cambridge / London cycle only to be told that this journey was too far to be planned. Seriously, WTF?

    Not only do I have to confirm that I mean Cambridge, Cambs and NOT Cambridge, Gloucestershire but ALSO London (GREATER LONDON) not London (Little London). And as for the URL pah!

  3. I thought I’d also post the breakdown of the costs of the Transport Direct system as they’re not too easy to extract from the PDF:

    Financial Year Design Feasibility Software Development Software Licences
    Data management Data collection Project management
    07/08 £91,595 £16,156
    08/09 £334,115 £62,930 £13,850
    09/10 £17,608 £79,323 £184,671 £309,000 £133,000
    10/11 £82,491 £293,000 £548,000 £115,000
    Total £91,595 £367,879 £224,744 £594,521 £857,000 £248,000

    Figures are Ex. VAT
    Source (PDF)

  4. There has been a huge amount of information released in response to the request. It appears ATOS Origin is not the only large consultancy involved, the minutes of the 22 October 2009 Transport Direct board meeting state:

    The journey planner database holds Ordnance Survey ITN data from November 2007. This is currently being brought up-to-date by Atkins.

    This raises the question of if this publicly funded update has been appropriately shared.

    In the minutes of the same board meeting there is evidence Transport Direct briefly considered working with CycleStreets and copying one of CycleStreets’ key features – responding to user suggestions.

    NI noted user generated data is a good way to create subjective cycle data. Whether this could be provided through existing websites or services such as was discussed. The board agreed that more thought was required and this would be discussed at the next board meeting.

    If your CycleStreets journey suggestion is unexpected in some way you can submit feedback and if they can they’ll fix the problem – perhaps by updating Open Street Map to include a missing feature. As one of the previous comments suggests this is pretty important with respect to cycle routes as the “network” is so locally fiddly and detailed. It appears this suggestion by the civil servant known only as “NI” wasn’t followed up at the subsequent board meeting.

  5. Nice analysis Richard, and there’s a lot of toes need holding to the coals on this one. I know that any one of those costs in the table above – even just the 16 grand – could revolutionise both cyclestreets and opencyclemap. What we achieve on shoestrings compares very favourably with what the big spenders in the public sectors get for their millions.

    Oh, and a quick “hello” from a fellow ex-Imperial ex-GardenHall-er!

  6. The cycling data part of this certainly looks like a lost opportunity.

    But I’m uncomfortable about rushing to allocate all the blame to the DfT.

    They did openly advertise their requirement for cycle data back in May 2009. As they are obliged to do. They received a number of different tenders in response to each part of the contract, from which they picked their preferred suppliers. As they are obliged to do.

    They surely have to open these things to competition. It would have been nice if they had spread a bit more awareness around beforehand, but anyone interested in working on this kind of project needs do use their antennae as well. If things like this are going to work better in future then it needs some matching process – with responsibilities on both sides.

  7. Sorry for the parochialism, but further to my earlier comment on the Cambridge one-way streets, I’ve just tried planning another artificial journey in the area, and TD doesn’t seem to have the St Philip’s Road bike contraflow. See for the route I was given by TD – the quickest and most obvious route for bikes is straight along St Philip’s Road and of course CycleStreets shows this: It’s beginning to look like although cycle-only links have been included in the TD cycle planner (such as the Carter Bridge in Cambridge), there may not be much difference on the roads from the car network. How can this be any use in its current state as a cycle route planner?! Have just emailed TD with some quite terse feedback about this particular journey.

  8. Public Sector procurement needs to be much more transparent. It’s one area where a Freedom of Information culture could make a massive difference to getting value for public money.

    At the moment there’s a bizarre arrangement where people wanting to say informed about public sector tenders have to sign up alerts from private companies as the government is so poor at publishing information themselves.

    There are often utterly crazy requirements which are out of line with the companies act and other legislation for those wishing to supply to government. Sometimes there are also completely inappropriate requirements for insurances which companies wouldn’t otherwise have to hold.

    In terms of the cycle data collection; the key issues are i/ is it being shared now it has been collected ii/ why did it need to be collected in the first place.

    In terms of why it needed to be specifically collected – surely for example there are a number of sources of information on route gradients – so why resurvey those.

    I think it’s perfectly reasonable to question why the Department of Transport was focusing on trying to make a user-focused website at all given the existence of CycleStreets and having considered the potential for Google to produce a free offering too.

  9. It’s certainly reasonable to question whether this is the right approach for DfT – but on a factual point, there is no requirement to sign up to a commercial feed to access public sector tenders. See for example. Commercial services charge for helping companies filter, not for access.

  10. The public sector appears to me to try and do all it can to avoid the costs delays and bureaucracy associated with European procurement rules which now are part of UK law. The thresholds for publishing available tenders are currently very high.

    It is not the case that commercial services only filter, they also cover tenders which fall below the thresholds – those which may well be of more interest to smaller businesses or other enterprises. I think the existence of a niche here in which the commercial services can operate indicate a failing in the public sector approach.

    Public advertising isn’t sufficient alone to enable greater use of companies other than enormous consultancies which specialise in making profit out of public sector spending.

  11. I think we probably agree that it is difficult for SMEs to access government business – but maybe not on the reasons.

    Low value tenders are also published openly – e.g (and elsewhere – typically by individual bodies). Government has every reason to try and encourage smaller suppliers to participate, but they don’t always do this in a very useful way.

    As you say, it’s not really an advertising problem. And (back to my original point) neither the blame, or the solution, lies entirely on government’s side.

  12. warrants an article all of its own as it highlights a lot of what’s wrong with the current system. I use it myself but it is wrong that it’s a subscription service. It’s currently advertising on its front page:

    Receive contract alert emails – get the latest contracts delivered from as little as 19p each day!

    You’ve got to subscribe to get anything useful out of it – which isn’t Government getting letting the information get out there to the people who could offer massive savings to the taxpayer.

    Making public sector procurement work in an open and transparent manner could save so much more than the subscription fees suply2gov can raise, those in government are simply doing it wrong. The whole approach and tone is wrong.

    How many public bodies have Pre-Qualification questionnaires that don’t filter out all companies which don’t have staff? I’d like to bet CycleStreets doesn’t have staff, and a huge number of successful businesses operating in IT and other “knowledge industries” don’t either.

    As an aside – it would help if we had a government which made it easier to employ people and more companies operated in this manner would grow; but all parties are focused on gimmicks which help tiny numbers of enterprises rather than revolutionising regulation to cope with the future.

  13. This is a good article and reminds me of similar experiences I had while running Friends of the Earth. On a shoestring we managed to turn out highly professional services for a tiny fraction of the costs incurred by governments. Two examples of this were in relation to a public information service we provided about toxic pollution sources and the status of the country’s most important wildlife sites. Governments really can get value for public money by investing in the energy, commitment and motivation of community groups. And not only does the government get value, so does the public as the information is more trusted.

  14. Another terrific article, Richard. To get a government contract requires huge amounts of time and investment, far beyond what most small businesses can risk. It’s a chicken-and-egg thing, however, as has been mentioned. A government contract can be eye-wateringly lucrative, thanks to the fact that the buyer has such deep pockets which don’t belong to them. Many companies make millions out of such contracts, and know full well that it’s a great investment to put together tremendously impressive proposals which businesses not specialising in government work can’t hope to match. We all know it’s the customer who eventually pays for the proposal, but in the world of government procurement, where it’s all about covering your back, image is everything.

  15. Tweet about citing this request in a hustings held on the Cambridge Science Park:

    @WorksInPrint @RTaylorUK Your research on the different cycle-route planners was used in the local cross-party debate yesterday! as e.g. of govt. waste.

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