Tag Archives: UK

Google maps UK canals

First cycle routes and now canals. Google is collaborating with the Canal and River Trust to provide a Google Map guide to the UK’s canal network called In Your Area (http://canalrivertrust.org.uk/in-your-area). It is not available as part of the standard Google Maps. The map allows you to enter your address or postcode to find the nearest canal. The map shows the locations of canals, canal locks and bridges and also volunteering opportunities, places to eat and drink and boating services and moorings.

Canal and River Trust Google Map of waterways

It is early days and not everything is marked up on the map, or at least it isn’t for the Kennet and Avon Canal in Reading. Also planned for later this year is the addition of  ‘Street View’ images of the canal and river network. (Please, no lurking in the bushes by the side of the tow paths and pushing the Google cycles into the canal!)

Google adds cycling routes to UK maps

Google has added cycle routes and directions to its UK maps. The feature has been available on US and Canadian maps since 2010 but has now been extended to the Europe and Australia. In the UK Google has been working with Sustrans (http://www.sustrans.org.uk/) to include bike trails, lanes and recommended roads. Set your starting point and destination as usual and the directions area on the screen should include a bicycle icon in addition to the car, public transport and walking icons.

Google Maps cycle option


Select a suggested route and as well as text instructions it will be outlined in blue on the map. The “bicycling layer” also shows trails (dark green lines), dedicated lanes (light green lines) and bicycle friendly roads (dotted green lines). Google came up with two routes from my house to Reading Railway Station. The first more direct one followed the roads.

Google Maps cycle route


The second suggestion took the scenic route along the river, which would be more pleasant and probably safer during the rush hour.

Google Maps cycle route


The directions come with the usual warning that they are in beta and that you should use caution. There is an option to report unmapped bike routes, streets that aren’t suited for cycling, and other problems.

Further information is available on Google Lat Long: Biking directions expands into Europe and Australia (http://google-latlong.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/biking-directions-expands-into-europe.html. The Guardian Bike Blog has tested out a couple of routes in London (Google Maps’ cycle routes: just how good are they?  http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/bike-blog/2012/jul/12/google-maps-uk-cycle-routes?) and set up a Twitter hashtag #cycletest for cyclists to comment on the routes they have tried.

Business information key web resources presentation

This is the presentation that formed the basis of the business information workshop that I facilitated on 17th May 2012.

If you do not see the embedded presentation above you can go direct to the file on authorSTREAM at http://www.authorstream.com/Presentation/karenblakeman-1430353-business-information-key-web-resources/

The top tips can be found at http://www.rba.co.uk/wordpress/2012/05/28/business-information-workshop-top-tips/

Google Transit takes the scenic route

I travel a lot for both business and leisure and I use public transport whenever possible. The plus side to this is that if it is a longish journey – for example Reading to Manchester – I can settle down on the train and get on with some work. The down side is that I have to know my way around the transport networks, not just in the UK but also in the other countries I visit. After over 20 years of business travel I have a range of tools and timetables bookmarked on my laptop plus the really useful stuff inside my head gained from experience. For example, the easiest route is not always the quickest: a single cross country stopping train may take longer but the seemingly quicker alternative of three changes can be seriously stress inducing and take longer if there are delays, signals failures, “incidents” and you miss your connections. I recently spotted that two of my clients link to Google Transit (http://www.google.com/transit) on their map and directions pages so I thought I would give it a go. You do not have to go to the Google Transit page to start using this; if you are already on Google Maps and are looking for directions from A to B, choose the middle “By public transport” icon. So let’s try a journey from Reading railway station to Milton Keynes.


Google Transit


Well I didn’t expect that: a 3 hour journey using 3 buses. Running the journey through the Google Transit page itself the journey time increases to around 3.5 hours and the number of buses to 4.


Google Transit


Google is well known for giving different results for the same type of search depending on the route you take but I was perplexed by Google’s insistence that I have to travel by bus. OK, it’s Saturday so there are probably engineering works and buses are probably the best option. I checked the National Rail web site (http://www.nationalrail.co.uk/):


National Rail


No problem it seems. My train journey via London would take just under 2 hours. Perhaps bus transport is Google’s default option? Underneath the ‘B’ location is ‘Add Destination – Show options’. Click on this and from the ‘Prefer’ box you can choose Any mode of public transport, Bus, Underground, Train, Tram/Light rail. The box underneath offers Best route (no definition as to what ‘best’ means), Fewer transfers, Less walking. No matter what combination of options I selected Google insisted that bus is the only option.


Google Transit Options


Perhaps Google is confused by the cross-London element of my journey even though Underground is one of the ‘Prefer’ options. Let’s look at a simpler journey: Reading to Crowthorne. I frequently travel along this route and it is a straightforward journey by rail taking 14 minutes as confirmed by National rail.


National Rail Crowthorne


Google, however, insists that it requires two buses and 1.5-2 hours!


Google Directions Crowthorne


I tried other routes and it seems that Google, in the UK at least, thinks that public transport means bus despite the ‘Prefer’ options it offers. This could be useful, though, if there is a rail strike and you need to identify alternative means of transport. Or you could go straight to Traveline (http://traveline.info/).

Google shows postcode boundaries – sort of

Google has started showing UK postcode area boundaries but not in Google maps as one would expect. Using the standard Google search box type in your postcode and at the top of your results Google shows you a map with the boundaries of the postcode area.

Google postcode area boundaries

Although the boundaries are in roughly the right area, they are not accurate. In this example, the coverage of RG4 5BE extends north and south to the top and bottom of Star Road. Others have reported similar discrepancies in their areas. As a general indication of the location of a postcode area it is fine but do not rely on Google to identify which streets or parts of streets are covered by it. Google also gives information on the nearest bus stop, which in this case is correct but not the only option. If you click through to the full sized Google map the boundaries disappear and they do not appear at all if you do the search straight away within Google Maps. You do, though, see more information on the public transport options.

Google Postcode Bus Information

Alternative bus stops are given and the numbered routes listed. I was rather puzzled by the number 74 and 74 A, which  have never seen, but a quick check revealed that it is the “football” bus that runs once a day and only when there is a match at the Madjeski Stadium. The scheduled times for the next buses are as accurate as the bus company timetables provided via Traveline and Transportdirect. I watched three buses arrive and compared it to Google’s schedule: the number 800 was 7 minutes late, the first number 23 was 6 minutes late and the second on time so Google is not using real time data.

Google postcode bus information

Overall, it’s not bad. Just remember that the postcode boundaries are approximate so if you need something more precise use the Royal Mail web site. The bus timetable will not tell you if a bus is delayed or cancelled but if you are contemplating moving to the area it is a quick way of assessing how good (or bad) the local public transport is.

Free UK company information: Company Director Check

Company Director Check (http://company-director-check.co.uk/) is a sister database to Company Check (http://companycheck.co.uk/), which I reviewed earlier this year (http://www.rba.co.uk/wordpress/2011/01/10/free-uk-company-information/). It provides free access to information on current and past directors of UK companies that until now has only been available for a fee. Director searches can unearth links between apparently unrelated companies and help you identify “families” or groups of companies. It can also bring to light interesting patterns of behaviour. For example, I carried out a search on a director whose business activities had aroused my suspicions. I knew he had run companies in the past that had been dissolved and his most recent venture had gone into liquidation. Looking at the list of companies of which he had been director it became clear that 6-8 weeks before a company was dissolved or went under he would set up a completely new company. This had happened so often that it was not just me who had begun to smell a rather large rodent. I understand that he is “currently under investigation”!

If you are viewing a company in Company Check click on the director’s name and you are taken straight to their record in Director Check. Alternatively just run a search on the person’s name in Director Check. A list of possible matches will be presented to you, which you can refine by entering a postcode. Alternatively just work through the list until you are certain that you have found the correct person. Do not be surprised if you find a director has multiple IDs. There is nothing “dodgy” about this, it just reflects the way the system has evolved over the years. Companies House have carried out a massive exercise to try and fix this but there are still some multiple IDs in the database.

The information that is provided includes full name, short name, month and year of birth, address and past and present directorships.

Director Check

The status of each directorship – active, dissolved, resigned – is displayed followed by a summary of each of the companies. More detailed information on the individual companies can be found on the Company Check web site.

Now that so much directorship information is freely available it will be interesting to see if more directors make use of the option to provide a service rather than their home address for the public record.

Definitely one to add to your business research toolkit.

Company Information: Company Check gives more UK data for free

I first reviewed Company Check (http://www.companycheck.co.uk/) earlier this year (Free UK company information http://www.rba.co.uk/wordpress/2011/01/10/free-uk-company-information/). Since then they have made more UK company information available free of charge. As well as Cash at Bank the service also shows 6 years of figures and graphs for Net Worth, Total Liabilities and Total Current Liabilities. Data is taken from official Companies House documents. Documents can be purchased through UK Data (http://ukdata.com/) but they are much more expensive than ordering direct from Companies House (http://www.companieshouse.gov.uk/) or bizzy (http://bizzy.co.uk/). UK Data’s detailed credit reports are worth considering though if you want more in depth analysis. Although Company Check lists the company directors it does not show other directorships as does bizzy. (See my previous posting Company information: Bizzy for UK company data and credit ratings http://www.rba.co.uk/wordpress/2011/07/19/company-information-bizzy-for-uk-company-data-and-credit-ratings/). This is another very useful site that I recommend you add to your company information toolkit.

Company Check on Thorntons PLC

Company information: Bizzy for UK company data and credit ratings

There are numerous services that take UK Companies House data and repackage it. Some of the data is offered free of charge but more detailed information and additional analysis such as credit reports are priced. bizzy (http://www.bizzy.co.uk/) is one such organisation but uniquely it also offers free credit ratings for many UK limited companies. (Note that it is the overall rating and not the full report that is available free of charge.)

To search bizzy simply enter the name of a company and bizzy presents you with a list of likely matches. Click on the company you want to view and as well as documents available for purchase you can see free of charge the names of the directors together with a list of the other companies of which they are directors, industry sector, date of incorporation, registered address, and a list of competitors and peers.

Bizzy Report on Thorntons

To see the credit rating of the company you have to register with the site. Ordinary registration is free but there is also a bizzy PLUS account (£9.99/month or £99/year). The PLUS account allows you to view credit limits, mortgages and CCJs, includes a Risk Tracker for monitoring companies of interest, and gives you a 15% discount on all purchases. If you have the bizzy FREE account you will only be able to see credit ratings that are from 100 down to 30. Those below 30 show “Not public for this company” for their credit rating. If you have signed up for the bizzy PLUS all credit ratings are displayed.

The bizzy credit scores are as follows:

 85 and 100 – ‘Excellent Creditworthiness’,
70 and 84  – ‘Very Good Creditworthiness’
50 and 69  – ‘Good Creditworthiness’
30 and 49  –  ‘Creditworthy’
15 and 29  –  ‘Credit Against Collateral’
0 and 14 –  ‘Caution – Credit At Your Discretion’

I ran a check on a company for a friend of mine. They had heard rumours about the company and were uncertain as to whether it was safe to do business with them. Would the company go under? There was little to go on at Companies House as the company was filing abbreviated accounts and had not filed documents for the previous year. I used bizzy FREE to run the search and no credit rating was displayed. In order to see how bad it was I bought the credit report (£11.99). bizzy gave the company a rating of zero and the long list of outstanding CCJs for unpaid bills was all the evidence we needed to avoid the company like the plague. (The company concerned has now gone into liquidation).

Official documents filed at Companies House and bought direct from them cost £1 but can be bought via bizzy for £0.99. That is only 1 pence less than the Companies House price and might not be enough on its own to tempt you onto bizzy but the additional free information might. An important part of company research is uncovering what the directors are up to and bizzy makes it very easy to view a list of directorships held by a person. On the Companies House web site this is only possible if you subscribe to the full service rather than the free Webcheck option.

I have found that the information on bizzy is often more up to date than that provided by some of the larger credit rating companies and bizzy covers every UK limited company, even very small ones. I tried searching for three small companies using http://www.do-business.net/sbc, which I have often used in the past, and none of them were in the database.

Bizzy also searches official information and sells credit reports on companies in other European countries. It is not obvious how you do this until you start searching on the company name. Above and to the right of the list of companies on the results page is a ‘Search Country’ box and it is from the drop down menu that you select the country.

Bizzy European Companies

Remember, though, that the amount of information that companies have to disclose varies from country to country and may consist of little more than name, registration number, status and address.

If you are researching UK companies I recommend that you consider including bizzy in your toolkit, but should you go for a FREE or PLUS account? It all depends on how much company research you think you’ll do in a year. If it is just a handful then perhaps the free option will suffice but more than that and bizzy PLUS with its 15% discount and standard display of credit limits, mortgages, and CCJs makes more economic sense.

UK crime data as clear as mud

I’m a nosy neighbour. I like to know what’s going on in my area: who’s bought the house next door, local planning applications, any dodgy activity going on? My husband and I are both self employed so there is usually at least one of us out and about in Caversham during the day. That means we have the chance to chat with our local postman, workmen digging up the road, Police Community Support Officers doing their rounds and with people in the local shops, bank and post office. Crime, not surprisingly, is a major topic on our “watch list” and just over two years ago police forces in England and Wales started to provide access to local crime statistics via online maps. The new service allowed you to drill down to ward level and view trends in burglary, robbery, theft, vehicle crime, violent crime and anti-social behaviour.

The format varied from one police force to another. For example Thames Valley Police provided a basic map and tables of data:

Thames Valley Police 2008 crime rates

Others such as the Metropolitan Police included additional graphical representation of the statistics such as  bar charts:

Metropolitan Police 2008 Crime Rates

None of them pinned down incidents to individual streets or addresses but they did give you an idea of the level of crime in a particular neighbourhood, how it compared with the same period the previous year and whether it was high, above average, average, below average, low or no crime. They were short, though, on detailed definitions of what each category of crime included. I looked at these maps out of personal curiosity rather than using them for any serious business application, and I made certain assumptions such as murder being included under ‘Violence against the person’. That may not have been the case.

Some police forces placed obvious links to the information on their home pages whilst others buried the data in obscure corners of their web sites. The crime maps where then all moved to the CrimeMapper web site – the Thames Valley Police map can still be seen at http://maps.police.uk/view/thames-valley – but that has now been integrated into Police.uk website, which “includes street-level crime data and many other enhancements“.

All you have to do is go to http://www.police.uk/, type in your postcode, town, village or street into the search box and “get instant access to street-level crime maps and data, as well as details of your local policing team and beat meetings“. The first screen looks good with news of local meetings, events, recent tweets, YouTube videos and – as the home page promised – information on my local policing team.

Police UK page for RG4 5BE

When I focus on the map to look at the detail there are markers for the location of the crimes and clicking on them gives you a brief description of the crime:

Detail on Police UK crime rates for Caversham

In this example, the detail box had details of two crimes “on or near Anglefield Road” and this is where I started to become confused. Were the burglary and the violent crime part  of the same incident or totally separate? Furthermore, if you look in the left hand panel of the screen you will see “To protect privacy, individual addresses are not pinpointed on the map. Crimes are mapped to an anonymous point on or near the road where they occurred.” Fair enough, but I would like to know how near ‘near’ is. 100, 200, 400 yards? Half a mile, a mile? And does the focus shift from one street to another from one month to the next? If it stays put then a street could gain a crime rate reputation that it does not deserve but if it shifts there is no way one can compare data from one month or year to another, which brings me to my next question.

Why is there only one month’s data? Previous versions of the crime maps gave you three months data for the current and the previous year for comparison. There is nothing about this in the Help section of  the Police UK site but the Guardian reports:

police forces have indicated that whenever a new set of data is uploaded – probably each month – the previous set will be removed from public view, making comparisons impossible unless outside developers actively store it.” (Crime maps are ‘worse than useless’, claim developers http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2011/feb/02/uk-crime-maps-developers-unhappy?CMP=twt_iph).

This means that if you want to run comparisons over time you will have to download the files and store them on your own system each month, or find someone else who is already doing it.

The Guardian article also says:

the Information Commissioner‘s Office (ICO) advised that tying crime reports to postcodes or streets with fewer than 12 addresses would render the individuals involved too identifiable. The police have also decided to remove data about murders or sexual assaults.

With respect to the latter the help file on the Police UK site suggests otherwise:

Crimes have been grouped into six categories following advice from the Information Commissioner’s Office. This doesn’t mean that the crimes listed under ‘other’ are not seen as important. Rather it ensures that for some of the more sensitive crimes there is even greater privacy for the victims.

So which is it: murders and sexual assaults are not included at all or aggregated under “other”? Jonathan Raper says on his blog Placr News (“Five reasons to be cautious about street level crime data” http://placr.co.uk/blog/2011/02/five-reasons-to-be-cautious-about-street-level-crime-data/):

Some data is redacted eg sexual offences, murder. The Metropolitan Police has already released this data to ward level though… and it is easy to cross-reference one murder in one ward to reports in the local press at the same time

Data visualisations and mashups are becoming increasingly popular and make it considerably easier to assess a situation and view trends. The Guardian Datablog (http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog), for example, encourages people to take data sets, mash them up and create their own visualisations, and upload a screen shot to  the Guardian Datastore on Flickr (http://www.flickr.com/groups/1115946@N24/). It is vital, though, that the source of the data, whether the full data set or just a selection has been used, and whether or not it is going to be updated is clearly spelt out. All too often one or even all of these are missing from the accompanying notes, and in some cases there are no notes at all!

An example of good practice is “UK transport mapped: Every bus stop, train station, ferry port and taxi rank in Britain” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2010/sep/27/uk-transport-national-public-data-repository). The posting clearly states the source (http://data.gov.uk/dataset/nptdr) and its coverage:

“A snapshot of every public transport journey in Great Britain for a selected week in October each year. The dataset is compiled with information from many sources, including local public transport information from each of the traveline regions, also coach services from the national coach services database and rail information from the Association of Train Operating Companies”

It then goes on to specify the time period  (5-11 October, 2009) and the tools that were used to create the visualisation.

Another is the “Live map of London Underground trains” (http://traintimes.org.uk/map/tube/). This shows “all trains on the London Underground network in approximately real time“. The source is a live data feed from Transport for London (TfL) and the notes state that a “small number of stations are misplaced or missing; occasional trains behave oddly; some H&C and Circle stations are missing in the TfL feed.” It would be helpful to have a list of those missing stations, but the site has at least brought the issue of potential missing data to the users’ attention.

Returning to the Police.uk crime data, there are three major problems with the site for me as a researcher:

1. Are all crimes included in the database, or are some such as murders and sexual assaults excluded altogether or aggregated under “other”? More detailed and unambiguous scope notes please.

2. The street data level is useless. The markers are not exact locations but “near” to, there is no definition of “near”, no information on how the position of the marker is calculated or the geographic radius that it covers. It would be better to return to aggregated data at the ward level.

3. There are no options for comparing time periods and it seems that historical data will not be available on the web site. An ad hoc researcher will have to spend time and effort tracking down a developer or a web site that is downloading and keeping copies of all of the datasets as they are published.

The new crime data web site is a retrograde step. We need transparency and clarity rather than the muddle and confusion that has been generated by the lack of information on what is being provided.

Free UK company information

One of the most frequently asked questions that land in my inbox is “Where can I find information on [insert company name of your choice]”. The enquiry is often about a UK company and comes from ordinary Joe or Josephine Bloggs who knows nothing about sources of business information. Those of you who, like me, have these resources at our fingertips may roll your eyes heavenwards but let’s heave a huge sigh of relief that these people are bothering to ask about checking up on a company. On further investigation, many of my correspondents admit that they have been approached over the phone regarding a “once only opportunity” involving the company concerned and are suspicious of the offer. Unfortunately, I also receive emails from people wanting to find out about a company after they have parted with their money.

The first port of call for official information on UK companies is Companies House (http://www.companieshouse.gov.uk/). Not every form of company or organisation is required to register at Companies House: for example, in the UK I am a sole trader and therefore do not have to register or file accounts. I have noticed an increasing number of comments on the web and social media from small businesses who have decided to de-register because of  the bureaucracy. The absence of a registration at Companies House is not necessarily cause for concern but then most of us do not cold call people with an “exclusive investment opportunity”! An easy way to check if there is a problem with a company of any sort is to search for them on Google and include scam or hoax in your search. That may seem obvious but so many victims who contact me never considered that strategy.

So if you have been approached by the likes of Trotters Independent Traders ltd. plc go to Companies House and use the free Web Check option which is in the centre panel on the home page.

Companies House

You can search for currently or recently dissolved names, dissolved names, previous names or proposed names. Free information includes name, registered number and address, status (for example active, liquidation), nature of business, date of last accounts. Further information and documents such as accounts and certificate of incorporation are priced at GBP 1 each.

Several other services re-package and sell information from Companies House and in some cases provide some of the additional priced Companies House information free of charge.

Company Check (http://www.companycheck.co.uk/) are part of  UK Data (http://ukdata.com/), which re-sells Companies House documents and provides credit reports. The latter include current and historical credit risk information, director details, ownership and group structure, CCJ information and up to five years of accounting figures including turnover and a profit and loss account if filed. All documents cost GBP 18, which is far more than that charged by Companies House but the credit report may be the better option if you need a detailed report and assessment of the company.

The Company Check free information includes name, registered address and number, telephone number, activity, status, thumbnail of the web site and cash at bank for the last five years. There is also a graph showing the number of website visitors from Compete (http://www.compete.com/), but this information may not be available for smaller companies.

Company Check

Another source of free company information is the SME Hub Company Accounts Information (http://www.thesmehub.com/benefit/accounts). This is available to SME members only but registration is free. The company address is not displayed but there is a link that takes you to Companies House where you have to re-enter the company name to access the data. There is also a link to Credit Safe for credit reports (http://www.creditsafe.com/).

SME Hub Company Accounts

There is a very useful graph showing trends for the company in net worth, cash and total liabilities. The most recent accounts plus a downloadable PDF are also free of charge.

I had problems with the SME Hub when looking at companies that had recently gone into liquidation. Company Check gives its standard information plus the status as “Liquidation” but the SME Hub leaves you guessing by presenting you with an empty template.

Company Check and the SME Hub are quick and easy ways to access the free and some of the priced Companies House information. Company Check offers the Companies House free registration data and five years of cash at bank: the SME Hub provides a trends graph of net worth, cash and liabilities plus latest accounts but no basic contact or status information. Both can alert you to potential problems with a company but, ultimately, Companies House is the place to go for the original data.