How Orbmaps helps creating smart cities

During this autumn we have analyzed the approach of different countries towards open-data and what some best practices might be. After looking closer at the UK’s open-data ecosystem we have learned a lot. The next obvious step was to have a closer look at another country and the concept of “Smart Cities”.


We got the opportunity to talk with Lachlan Spedding, founder of Orbmaps – a company that utilizes open data from planning schemes for efficient property development. This interview will cover everything from a short summary about Orbmaps, the key things that developers take into consideration when they want to use data from governments – and how data contributes to efficiency, as well as smart cities.

To summarize, Orbmaps has shown that there are both huge values in streamlining and fastening up the decision process in infrastructure. While doing so several learnings can be made by data publishers on what is important for an actor like Orbmaps. Below you find the detailed story.

Australia is divided in local, regional, and national governments. This explains the large number of different portals that have open data. However the quality differentiates a lot between these. For example:

  • Queensland state and local government stands out as the best state for open data in Australia.

  • However local governments nationwide have been slow to adopt a professional data platform with a varying quality.

  • Queensland Government’s “open data revolution” began in Queensland in Oct 2012. Government’s former Premier, Campbell Newman, led a state-down approach to opening government data to the world “…to encourage the private sector to develop innovative new services and solutions to Queenslanders’ problems”. This led to nation-wide reforms from the federal government after the success of Queensland’s reforms.

Interview with Lachlan Spedding

Hi Lachlan, as I’ve understood, you are combining up to date local – government mapping with town planning and property information into one easy search which contributes to fewer hours of work for developers, town planners, etc. Could you tell us a little bit more about the four different areas in your project that you offer, such as the scanner, heatmap, reports, and “My properties”?

– Simply put, what we do is that we take government data and present it in an understandable way for someone who has no idea.

– Orbmaps traffic light system helps property professionals instantly see what can be developed or not. Green is good for development, and Red Bad, Green is GO and Red is no.”

– Now people can scan through thousands of properties and see the development potential instantly.

– On this map here there are probably 1000 different layers of data from governments. All the different government organizations publish their data on local government websites and the data is neither easy to understand or unified in a simple way. Orbmaps unifies these different datasets and presents them in an understandable way. Secondly, we do a heatmap for how hard it is to do property development in a certain area. The highest level of restriction (darkest red) means, nonetheless, that you are not going to develop properties there. The next level of restriction, which is a lighter red, means that you will have to fight the government for it but you will probably be able to do it. You just have to make sure that you prove them wrong. In the yellow areas the government does not know if property development is possible and the green areas represent the land that has the least level of constraint for property development.

– If we look closer at the data it makes us understand each piece of legislation that affects property development in a certain area. What we have done is that we have reverse engineered planning schemes from the government. We collect all the data, reverse engineer it to show what can be built and what can not. Planning schemes are a checkbox system for what they regulate but reverse engineering them takes a lot of time.

What is the benefit of using Orbmaps for local authorities and the government?
– Orbmaps helps private developers to find land and also helps governments understand what parts of land are valuable for themselves. Besides this, it also helps government with the strategic planning of land supply as well as giving the government a heads up for what land is valuable to keep. This contributes to efficient town-planning and also smarter spent resources.

Regarding the different types of data you use, I wonder if there were any obstacles for you to acquire the data in the beginning (such as copyright infringement, personal integrity, badly structured data, legal difficulties) or was it structured and complete from the beginning?
– The biggest obstacle has been the government’s APIs. They break all the time and you can’t, then, actually rely on them. They set up all these APIs but no one is using them. For orbmaps that is the biggest problem. Badly structured data has also been an obstacle because when we can’t rely on government APIs, we have to download all the data and manage it by ourselves. This could be avoided if the APIs didn’t break or the data-structure was good from the beginning. The government’s ability to update the data is not good either. Copyright does not affect us that much but there have been cases where it has happened. Personal integrity in Australia is different from Sweden. You can get the information of what people have bought, at what price, the date, and surname. The data has been badly structured from the beginning and this is something we are really involved with. Governments are not good at quantifying how bad their data actually is.

What format of data is most commonly used by your company?
– Most stuff we do is shapefiles and we have in some way become experts as to how the structure can be best practiced. This comes from our work with the actual data.

Do you think there has been a relation between the quantity of data published in Australia and companies being created that use open data, or has it been more important having qualitative data?
– Quantity and quality, my idea won’t work over there if they don’t have any information released. It just doesn’t work. The quality of data is very important, the map does not have to be completely accurate but it has to be updated. Something governments have to be reminded of is that continuous progression on improving the data is of vital importance. It’s not just publishing the data, you need to put in a bit of effort into the data (especially updating it) because that is most important for businesses. Before publishing a data-layer or dataset, you have to understand how it will be used and then format it that way. If you know who is going to use the data then give them the format they are asking for and, if not, just make the best guess. This is certainly something governments have to be continuously reminded of.

How do you decide whether or not to trust a dataset from a publisher before you start to use it?
– The data has to be updated and of course they also need an API. If they want to be the best publisher they need to have a good system so we can pull the data and so that the APIs won’t break. Otherwise there is no point. One thing that governments in Australia has not comprehended is that there is no efficient way of downloading the data. You have to click several links before actually being able to download.

Futurewise, what will be the most important factor for the establishment and creation of smart cities? Do you see any obstacles along the way?
– I think smart cities can come in many different ways. Giving the ability to allow innovation to thrive is what drives our economy. By publishing the data in an open and reusable way, it allows others to come up with ideas that you, the government, and I would not think of. Applications made from data that no one has ever thought about. Being able to easily download and understand the data certainly allows private innovation and, from there, it usually creates time-efficiency for private companies and public organizations. Using Orbmaps as an example of how governments can now, more effectively, organize their future planning systems than they did before. Orbmaps will allow you to do it within one day instead of seven months. That is how you want a smart city to be – efficient. You need to make the data accessible and efficient and that’s all there is to it. A smart city is an efficient city. Simple, easy to access, and fast.