Of potholes and spatial literacy….

Thursday, January 10, 2008 at 14:02:02

I hit a bad pothole in the village I live in a few weeks back, muttering the usual expletives about poor council services and then thought nothing of it. Being a model citizen, my wife said I should report it to the council. This got me thinking that maintenance reporting is a classic “web” activity and, not only that, is inherenetly geospatial: you need to know where to perform a rear. So off I went to Bedfordshire County Council’s website in the vain hope that I could achieve this relatively simple task. Much to my surprise, a “Pothole Reporting Form” was only about 3 menus deep and painfully simple to complete, emailing the request to the requisite department(indeed, they turn up and repaired the hole 3-days later. Local governbment at its best!). And….. no map. Yes, you have to tell them where the pothole is, but this is a written description which they work from. I can appreciate that a web form requires no specialist knowledge to set up, but there really should be a better interface for adding geospatial information.

This actually got me thinking about how people report information and, indeed, how it is requested. If you ask for anything for your own home you will usually give a postcode and house number. You won’t know that for anywhere other than your own home. If you phone the emergency services, particularly at the scene of an accident, a considerable amount of time will be use to get your precise location, which can also now be triangulated if you are using a mobile or, in the case of motorway phones, they know where you are. In these instances, people are specifically elliciting information about location to make absolutely sure. However location reporting is difficult if you don’t have a mobile or GPS, relying on the skills of the individual to geolcoation themselves. This is clearly a “spatial literacy” issue, something that is being addressed by the SPLINT CETL (Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning).

So, the “pothole reporting form” relies on the individual providing a verbal description of the location of the site, using some kind of linear referencing system (500m from junction with…. etc). Can they do this and what sort of errors on accuracy are there? Of course, we are dealing with a transport network, so there are a limited number of locations where the site can be, assuming there is no ambiguity about the town or street. The alternative is a map of some description. However this also requires a level of spatial literacy, arguably more so than with a written description (although I know which I would prefer to use). You would need to implement both a map and aerial photo interface (possibly also oblique) to cater for those less familiar with the area and even then they might not be able to locate the site. This would be an interesting exercise comparing the accuracy of geolocation reporting methods….

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