The government has wasted millions of pounds setting up a sub-optimal journey planner for cyclists – when an online system set up by enthusiasts provides wider coverage and more functionality at a fraction of the cost incurred by the Department for Transport (DfT).
On the day that Alistair Darling and would-be Chancellor George Osborne locked horns on the issue of just how much scope there is for cuts in government budgets, that is the accusation levelled by cycling activist and Reg reader Richard Taylor.
The actual sums involved in this instance are trivial by comparison to overall government spend. However, Mr Taylor believes that this case highlights the accusation levelled by Tom Steinberg, Director of MySociety, that the Civil Service is still a long way from understanding how to get the best out of the internet, and officially-inspired IT projects therefore compete with perfectly adequate and popular end-user devised solutions, rather than collaborating with them.
On his personal website Mr Taylor explains how a free online cycle route planner has been available in Cambridge since the Cambridge Cycling Campaign Journey Planner was launched in 2006. This system then mutated into CycleStreets, a nationwide project, which provides users with suggestions for cycle friendly routes and allows them to choose for either an "unhurried" or "quick" ride. The cost of this scheme, in terms of central government funding, was a few thousand pounds (around £5,000 to £6,000).
In 2009, the Department of Transport launched a service via its transportdirect.info website, enabling people to find cycle friendly routes in eighteen specific areas of the UK. The government website only covers a small handful of selected locations, while CycleStreets covers the whole of the UK, subject to restrictions set by the quality of Open Street Map data for a given area. CycleStreets provides additional function not available through the official option, including integration with a national photomap which allows people to see photos taken along the route. The site also integrates with Google Earth.
The cost of work on the government site to date, according to a freedom of information request submitted via the whatdotheyknow website is £2,383,739, with plans currently under way to spend a further £400,000 on adapting what has been produced to provide a route planner for a Cycling for Schools programme.
We have asked the DfT for a response to the accusation that they have been profligate with public funds, but due to the strictures of election reporting they are not allowed to answer our questions for at least a month.
A spokesman for the Conservative Party said: "News that Labour have spent millions replicating a service that cycling enthusiasts provide at a fraction of the price will come as a surprise to no one. Instead of providing the data and information that could help people to set up these kinds of websites, they seem to think government always knows best, even if it costs the taxpayer millions to give people something they can do better themselves." At time of writing, we have received no comment from the Labour Party.
Taylor has his own views as to why such problems arise. However, the bottom line, according to his own analysis, is that the government ought to stick to doing what it does best, which includes gathering and disseminating data. However, where end-users have already put in the ground work, central IT should make use of what has already been done, rather than try to reinvent the wheel. ®