What do we know about empty buildings and unused land in Leeds?

monochromatic-hallwayimage: Monochrome Hallway by Tom Blackwell

Empty dwelling management orders and activism from charities like Leeds Empties has meant empty domestic properties have been under a spotlight, despite a lack of enforcement of orders.

What about commercial empties and unused land? To find out, Sue Ball and I started looking into the situation in Leeds, South Leeds in particular. Unlike some councils, Leeds City Council publishes a list of long term empty properties owned by limited companies (protecting the privacy of individual home owners by excluding them).

According to the Leeds Data Mill, the portal for Open Data in the city, “This data relates to long term empty properties (i.e. those that have been empty for more than 6 months). The information relates purely to empty property addresses that are within the private sector and which are not owned by private individuals (i.e. owned by limited companies)”.

On a tablet, we couldn’t work out if this information listed both commercial and domestic properties. We also found some annoying quirks with the layout of the preview mode losing the right-hand side edge of the dataset. On a laptop, we could see quite a bit of useful information: how long the property has been empty, who owns it and where it is. This was excellent but we still couldn’t tell if these properties were domestic only. We also wanted a list of unused land in and around South Leeds.

The helpful open data team at Leeds City Council provided a prompt response to our query, pointing us to the Council Land and Building Assets page.This has a lot more detail, presumably because these are council-owned assets. At first glance, I couldn’t tell if these assets were land, buildings or both. A closer look was needed, luckily, the data is available to download and play around with in your favourite spreadsheet program.

Finally, we looked into land held by the central government, called e-PIMS or more wordily: Central Government Property and Land including Welsh Ministers estate. Would these assets appear in the Leeds City Council’s list? It would be interesting to find out.

According to data.gov.uk, the central catalog for UK government open data: “Data files from e-PIMS, Government’s Property and Land asset database containing details of location, tenure and other key attributes for each asset. It includes details about the buildings, any vacant space and occupiers”. This looked promising! The data files provided are listed in a bit of jumble, with no sense of rhythm or rhyme, so it was tricky to work out if the files were up-to-date.

Now e-PIMS comes in four flavours: Building, Vacancy, Occupation, and Register of Public Sector Land. I’m not sure what we’ll need, so I grabbed all four. If you don’t want to wade through files, fear not, there is an alternative: Government Property Finder service. I believe it uses the same information as e-PIMS, but best to check this yourself. If it helps, the helpdesk listed is e-PIMS Service Delivery Helpdesk, so I’m pretty darn confident.

In any case, it is a much friendlier beast if you aren’t a data ninja, can’t be bothered to play with files, all or none of the above. You can search to let, for sale or the entire government estate. It’s a wizard, so just point and click. “South Leeds” as a place brings back nothing, nada, zilch, zero, but Leeds brings back 130 results! Now, we can’t tell from the listings if the property or land isn’t in use but you can download the results or pop them on a map.

What did we learn?
Firstly, yes, there’s a lot of information out there but it it comes in lots of different shapes and sizes and we still haven’t answered the burning questions which I’ll summarise below.

Secondly, we’re missing a big chunk if the long term empty properties owned by limited companies doesn’t hold commercial properties.

Thirdly, we could do with pulling all this together and speaking to some experts, either at Leeds City Council or commercial estate agents.

Burning questions

  1. Does the long term empty properties owned by limited companies also list commercial properties? [Leeds Data Mill]
  2. Does the Council Land and Building Assets split assets by type?
  3. Why is e-PMS so out of date? [Cabinet Office]
  4. Is the Government Property Finder service more up-to-date? [Cabinet Office]
  5. What land and which properties aren’t on our combined list? Do they matter?
  6. What exactly do we mean by “South Leeds”?

So we have our work cut out for us going forward but it’s good to know that when it comes to empty properties and unused land in Leeds, the information is out there.

Breaking news

Read or comment on the work in progress.

Can I help? Can you help?


image: Help by Patrick

One great thing about open data camp is the number of non-“data geeks”. This is important. Seeing yourself reflected in the lens of someone outside your community can bring fresh insight.

For example, asking for help. Personally, I’ve struggled to get help on certain topics. Even with a great community in Leeds and on twitter,  it can be like shouting into the wind.

So I shouldn’t have been surprised by this: “where can we go for help if we don’t know what we want, we aren’t techies, but we can define our problem?”. This came out of a discussion by FutureGov’s Marc Barto, Devon County Council’s Martin Howitt and myself called “How to release impossible data? Open discussion on #govdata #socialcare data”.

I don’t have all the answers but I can do something. I can help.

Let’s also manage expectations here: I don’t know everything nor everyone. I can’t promise that my help with be …helpful. I can’t promise to take on your problem or solve it. What I can do is point you in the right direction (if I know what that is!) or to the right people (same caveat) or to some helpful resources (same again).

I’m just one person, so if you’d like to do the same, no matter your expertise, let me know, let others know. Let’s have a conversation, lend a hand and pay it forward.

Useful (helpful) resources:

Review: Data Mining For Dummies – Meta S. Brown


I’m going to start by saying I really enjoyed this book. I’ve worked with data for nearly 20 years but there’s always something new, interesting and energising to learn.

However, my bugbear is creating a bubble for data geeks, data nerds and big data consultants. Insights are for everyone and data is one resource we can tap into for that. I am always on the lookout for books that help non-techies understand techie concepts and most importantly, what’s in it for them. This book falls squarely into that plain English, no bull approach.

Meta S. Brown aims this book squarely at domain experts – people who already have the know how that comes from working daily in their chosen fields. She then goes on to demonstrate how they can benefit from one method of manipulating data for insight: data mining.

I won’t pretend this book is perfect – it’s not. I understand some of the decisions, for example to focus on visual tools over text based ones. This is a minor niggle. The rest of the books covers in a good balance between succinctness and detail the *methodology* and *approach* to data mining.

This is key. With this grounding, the learning curve to pick up using a specific tool is reduced. And you’ll need to invest in that because that’s where this book fails to deliver. However, I’m pretty sure it would have been twice the size had Meta attempted to correct this, so as I mentioned, a minor niggle.

Bottom line: should you read this and what’s in it for you?

TLDR; Yes you should. Especially if you already do data jiggery pokery using spreadsheets, have that essential domain knowledge and want to up your game.

Even if you’re an expert data zen master, you’ll benefit from comparing Meta’s experiences, methodology and approach based on CRISP-DM to your own. A little practice-based analysis is a good thing.

Buy: Data Mining for Dummies by Meta S. Brown

Gaslit: Turning the tables on spyware stalking

imageKeep you free from sin by « м Ħ ж »

Gaslighting is mental abuse that twists, misrepresents and falsifies information in a bid to destabalise and control the target.  Today, apps on smartphones, tablets and computers offer abusers and stalkers a frightening amount of power over their targets.

In January 20145, the Guardian published an eye-opening piece on Spyware and smartphones: how abusive men track their partners. How can we stop this in its tracks and aid targets of gaslighting and stalking?


Education about technology is empowering. If you understand how your devices work, you are one step closer to disarming stalkers.


Privacy is important to everyone, but where are the apps that help protect us from exploitative practices including stalking?


Could you develop tools to turn stalking apps on their head and record the recording and the threats in a way that could be used by law enforcement?

No app will prevent stalking or mitigate the effect of gaslighting on targets but we can help put a stop to it – together.

Gaslit: Turning the tables on spyware stalking by Edafe Onerhime is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/jan/25/spyware-smartphone-abusive-men-track-partners-domestic-violence.

Reference Data – Sing from the same hymn sheet

What is reference data anyway? And why does it matter?

Imagine a choir turning up for practice. The choirmaster says “We’re singing A mighty fortress is our God”. Everyone smiles, they all know this song. At the signal, they start to sing. Half sing “A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing”, the other half sings “A mighty fortress is our God, a trusty shield and weapon”. Oh dear. Perhaps it’s time to get the hymn sheets out.

Reference data serves more or less the same purpose as those hymn sheets. It won’t help you sing more harmoniously, but it will make sure you are all singing from the same hymn sheet.

So, that’s one reason we need reference data – consistency. Here’s another: imagine again we’re at choir practice and we want our group to be the best. We listen to each person sing and get those with similar singing voices to stand together. We can see we have mostly sopranos, maybe a few altos and a contralto. Putting things, people, concepts and more into groups helps us understand them better. It helps us find patterns, add rankings, hierarchies and more.

Consistency and classification are two great reasons to use reference data. Now comes the dilemna. In our own organisations, we have some control over the reference data we use. It could be titles like Mr, Mrs, Ms, etc. It could be genders like neutral, male, female. It could even be a list of months of the year. Outside our organisations, we usually need to find common ground. That’s where standards come in. They can be industry-wide, issued by public bodies or controlled by private organisations. Even better, they could be freely available as open data.

The secret to the success of reference data is consistency and we get that by using a unique label – something that doesn’t change (at least not quickly) and is used to pinpoint exactly the reference we’re talking about. We call these identifiers. Think about your NHS number, your social security number, or your VIN.

What reference data do you use in your organisation and who owns it? I’m working with the Open Knowledge Foundation to curate, publish and more importantly, maintain, high quality reference data. Is there reference data you need that isn’t readily available? Get involved: contact me in the comments or on twitter; @ekoner.

Learn more: