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Common Ground

Participatory mapping and citizen engagement to promote neighbourhood social action

What would it mean if ordinary citizens had at their fingertips all the data and information they needed to understand and change their neighbourhoods for the better? This is the question that motivated the Common Ground project.


Common Ground was an idea borne out of Leeds City Lab, a six month experiment funded by the UK research councils in how to co-produce solutions in Leeds across different city sectors. Some of the main partners behind Leeds City Lab included Leeds Love It Share It, a community interest company which aims to promote new ways of working, along with the Open Data Institute node in Leeds and Leeds ACTS based at the University of Leeds.

This partnership found some more funds from the Leeds Social Science Institute which allowed us to develop the Common Ground Idea into a workable prototype. Two researchers, Imran Arif and Joy Justice from T4P were employed to support the project.

The basic idea

We used the idea of the commons as we wanted to highlight the assets and resources that ordinary citizens can use to improve their lives. While many people think of the commons as the ancient fields and village squares of ye olde England, they also refer to a wide range of resources (including green spaces and knowledge) and social relationships (such as sharing). In fact the whole modern city is a kind of commons that can be reclaimed to common good rather than private greed.

We brought this idea of the commons together with the growing participatory mapping movement. We were inspired by other groups around the world including New York city's NY Commons, Social Life and Shared Assets' Land Explorer.

The map was developed in partnership with ODI Leeds. In early conversations we said we wanted to create a real time, crowd-sourced, useful knowledge base. The basic idea of Common Ground is to use an openly available and editable base map, in this case Open Street map, and gather together open data sets that can be converted into 'layers' on the map. These layers can be switched on and off, with groups of them seen at the same time.

A screenshot of Common Ground
Credit: ODI Leeds, OpenStreetMap, CartoDB

Our first test layer was the location of allotments across the city. We then focused on common assets such as community buildings and assets ranging across schools, churches, community centres and organisations. We also explored showing information the map such as air pollution, multiple deprivation or crime. In that way citizens can see in a visual way any correlations between, for example, schools and pollution, playgrounds and deprivation, loneliness and community organisations. There were also a few key Leeds City Council and statutory layers that provide a bedrock of information that we are exploring incorporating the Site Allocation Map, the brownfield sites register and the database of publicly owned assets.

Common Ground showing the Leeds City Council Draft Site Allocations (2015) over-layed with brownfield site locations
Credit: Leeds City Council, OpenStreetMap, CartoDB

We also wanted to build in functionality so citizens can also make comments on information on the map, for example. By adding updates or responses about a place, project or group. The big potential is also the ability to add a whole new information set or layer that is crowd sourced from local knowledge.

Creating a layer by hand
Credit: ODI Leeds, OpenStreetMap, CartoDB

Testing and development

We undertook some consultation with a few active community organisations around Leeds to find out what they wanted out of this kind of map and find out how useful it might be and how it might get used. These including the Lilac co-housing co-operative in Bramley, the New Wortley Community Centre, the LS14 Trust in Seacroft, and Voluntary Action Leeds.

There was strong support for the framework of the project. Use and usefulness will inevitably increase as more data is layered on. Groups really liked the ability to add their own information, and tell their own story about activity in their neighbourhood. It also became clear that the online map should be supported with offline and paper copies as well as face-to-face meetings to guide interaction and support the development of understanding and ideas.

The current version includes layers on: Allotments, benches, bicycle parking, community centres, flooding data, Leeds electoral wards, leisure centres, Leeds City Council site allocation (city wide), libraries and public bookcases, neighbourhood network schemes, plaques, parking, parks, places of worship, postcode areas, public toilets, schools, social clubs, third-sector organisations, third-sector venues, trees, woods.

Ideas for future map features included:


  • Economic opportunities
  • Empty space and land opportunities
  • Premises and venue opportunities
  • Land identified for community self-build
  • Available grants in your area
  • Housing maps and landscaping design work
  • Things people would like to change


  • Recent change
  • Historic change: where things used to be and what has been left behind, what could be reinstated?

Community stories

  • Things others don't know about
  • Assets of community value
  • Spaces to tell your story


  • Walking routes
  • Unofficial footpaths
  • Community transport routes
  • Intersections of a journey

Other facilities

  • Unofficial parks
  • Shops in the area
  • Places to take the kids during holidays
  • Play places and fun places
  • Religious centres
  • Leisure centres and facilities


  • Public Toilets - disability access
  • Seating areas
  • Free wifi spots
  • Connection
  • Places of hospitality
  • Social network mapping
  • Community places


  • Climate change vulnerability
  • Traffic and air pollution data
  • Natural England landscape and ecology designations

In future developments we also want to explore: list functions for layers,a search function to locate particular areas/points, adding comments/pop-ups on individual points, adding photos, adding relationships between entities and annotating these, adding a personalised layer created by user.

Unlocking the potential of Common Ground

There are a number of significant issues to be overcome to unlock the potential of the Common Ground map. First, there are technical and translation issues. For datasets to be incorporated as layers onto the map they need to be in the format of GeoJSON. Only a few of the datasets on Data Mill North are in this format but we are working with colleagues at the University of Leeds and in Leeds City Council to improve this. We want to find a simple way to translate general CSV data sets into the right format so they can be incorporated easily.

The second issue is that of licensing. There is a real patchwork of different licences underpinning datasets. Some are open licence and free to use, others are commercial, fire-walled or private. Some negotiation is needed to get permission from some data holders in order to populate Common Ground with the datasets that will really be useful to citizens.Those associated with the Land Registry and Ordinance Survey raise particular issues. We need to lobby hard for more open data to empower citizens.

The third issue is around use and usefulness. For the map to get used, human facilitators are required (e.g. to buy in to using the map, interact with it, promote the map, develop map literacy, train others to use it). The real potential is a blended off-online approach where the online map is used in conjunction with community facilitators who can assist in translating information into ideas for action. This also raises issues of purpose. Is the map simply for increasing awareness and the flow of knowledge or translating this into more instrumental action planning for neighbourhood level social change.

There are also issues around privacy, consistency and misuse. Users have to be registered to create their own layers and there is a certain level of trust that negative, critical or defamatory information will not be added. We have started using the ODI Data Ethics Canvas to create an ethics and user code and this needs developing further.

Ethics canvas
Using the ODI ethics canvas (the ethics canvas has since been improved/updated). Credit: Joy Justice

Next steps

We are really excited about taking this project forward. There is huge interest right now and much potential impact just around the corner to directly improve the quality of life in neighbourhoods. We want to develop Common Ground from a first stage prototype into a workable and fully usable tool for neighbourhood planning and social action.

Going forward, we want to adopt a more action research approach, where the agenda of the research team and the community group are inline and both shape the direction of the project and the nature of the enquiry.

We need to seek more resources to fund this next phase. We are exploring partnerships and funding sources, especially the Economic and Social Research Council. Get in touch if you are actively interested.