The development of `Active Places` - a portal of sports facilities


Courtesy of Landmark Information Group

In August 2001 Tessa Jowell, Secretary of State for Culture, Media & Sport, announced the proposal for a 'Domesday Book of Sports Facilities'.

The objective was to establish a single authoritative database of sports facilities for England and to disseminate this information freely to the public, central and local government, National Sports Governing Bodies, commercial organisations, applicants for funding, and other organisations. It aims to become the definitive source for identifying, using and planning sports facilities.

Sport England defined the vision for the project, which is now known as Active Places, and successfully obtained £2M of funding from Big Lottery (then the New Opportunities Fund), supplemented by £3.2M from its own funds. Sport England took the lead in developing and implementing the Active Places project, working closely with three commercial partners (Landmark, The Leisure Database Company (TLDC), and PMP) and an extensive group of stakeholders.

The challenges
Many different organisations with an interest in sport collect and maintain information about sports facilities separately, to varying levels of completeness and entirely different definitions and formats. The first stage of the project was to build one comprehensive database from these disparate sources (each with its own database structure, format and contents). Bringing these together involved matching, synchronisation, de-duplicating and geocoding. This represented the project's first major challenge.

The second challenge was how to make this information accessible to the public, in an easy-to-use format, and to organisations involved in the planning, building and maintaining of sports facilities in a format that allows more details analysis.

The final challenge was how to ensure that the system remained secure and resilient to any failure in communications or hardware failures. Active Places is a high profile system and it is vital that a fast response to users and a high level of availability is maintained at all times.

The solutions

Building the database

Landmark Solutions undertook the merging, matching, de-duplicating and geocoding of the source data based on consultations, and the development of business rules, with Sport England, TLDC and PMP. As a result of these consultations, Landmark developed a Sports Data Model; a generic structure accommodating both current and perceived future requirements for Active Places. This provided the basis for defining the schema for the underlying database, held in MS SQL Server. Outputs from the data matching exercise were loaded into this Data Model.

The database will undergo review, validation and enhancement by a number of processes, including reviews and additional data collection by Sport England, TLDC and PMP. User feedback on the data will be verified and taken into account. The data will be regularly reviewed, validated and updated by TLDC and fed through to Landmark to update the site on a weekly cycle. As a first step, Active Places included information on a selected range of sports facilities ' approximately 10,000. Eventually almost 100,000 facilities will be included.

Building the system
Landmark developed the functionality for the Active Places system based on the user requirements defined by Sport England, which were further detailed in an agreed System Requirements Specification. The web-GIS solution is heavily map-based and uses ESRI GIS software implemented using ArcSDE. The system now includes two front-end websites ' Active Places and Active Places Power.

Active Places:
The Active Places site, which was launched by Tessa Jowell on 11th July 2004, provides map-based tools to allow the public to search for suitable sports facilities within their area of interest. For ease of use by non-technical users, the map tools and interface were deliberately kept simple and intuitive.

These tools include:

  • 'find nearest' tool, which allows users to find facilities of a particular type within a specified distance from a postcode 
  • 'facility finder' tool, which allows searches on type of facility, name, town, local authority and postcode 
  • 'freestyle' option, allowing users to use standard map-based tools (zoom, pan, identify) to find facilities of interest

Once the user has identified a facility of interest, they can obtain further details and/or link directly to the facility's own website.

Active Places Power:
Building on the functionality provided in the Active Places website, and using the same comprehensive database of sports facilities, Active Places Power was launched in April 2005. Developed to provide a planning tool for sports facilities, Active Places Power is designed to assist in investment decisions across Government and to help local authorities carry out audits of their sports provision, identify gaps and develop local strategies. It will also help national governing bodies of sport in identifying and planning where they need to improve and invest in facilities for their participants. The site is password protected and users are assigned different rights according to their needs and level of use.

Tools in Active Places Power include:
the ability to specify and download chunks of data, pertaining to a user's area of interest, for use within their own planning and modelling software

  • an advanced version of the facility finder tool to allow more specific search and retrieval functions
  • tools to produce a number of thematic map outputs including a facility distribution map showing selected
  • administrative areas colour coded by the number of facilities present, or selected administrative areas colour coded by facilities in relation to user-defined census indicators (e.g. population, age ranges etc)
  • a range of strategic planning tools based on models developed by the Planning Data Management Service of University of Edinburgh.

Improving and maintaining the data
In addition, Landmark's Data Maintenance Team has been working alongside Sport England and the other contractors to develop an efficient, thorough and accurate procedure for improving the completeness and the quality of the grass pitch portion of the Active Places database. The contract involves the management of data for existing sites, covering a variety of sports ranging from football to polo, as well as the identification of new ones.

To make the submission of data (by approximately 10,000 suppliers) as simple and hassle free as possible, web survey forms have been designed specifically to work alongside the power user forms. These survey forms help to maximise the level of automated validation, maintain a high level of accuracy and streamline the throughput of data into Active Places database.

The development of the overall survey strategy has been coordinated with the other contractors and with various sporting bodies to allow the continuous and synchronised updating of data. Given the complex structure of the data model, careful attention has had to be paid to issues such as 'ownership' of data to ensure work is not duplicated and to maintain the integrity of the individual working databases.

Running the system
Sport England has contracted with Landmark to host the system in a secure Data Centre that allows no outside access to non-essential staff.

The entire project resides over two separate networks with 12 servers. The first network uses four servers and is used for testing and staging the application before it goes public. Once the application is tested and approved in the Staging network, it is then moved into the Live Production network. At this level of operation, the system is designed for high resiliency and availability and uses 8 servers. The top tier web environment is built using two servers with network load balancing.

The middle tier mapping servers are designed to allow cross over connectivity from the web servers, whereby any of the web servers has the ability to contact any of the mapping servers that is free and available. The database servers are also designed for an active/passive failover scenario using Microsoft Clustering.

The entire operation is carefully monitored using automated tools to ensure system resources are not compromised. This 24/7 monitoring process makes observations such as network availability of servers, disk space usage, application state, and memory and database status. It is also integrated with an automated SMS messaging system to alert on-call technical staff.

The benefits

  • The general public have easy to access to information about local sports facilities and are able to locate these quickly and easily using map-based tools
  • Promotes the use of sports facilities in line with the government's aim to increase participation in sport among all sectors of the population
  • Meets government requirements by using the principles of e-government to deliver information to the public
  • Enables future cost savings by eliminating or reducing wasted resources through standardised data collection and maintenance which was often duplicated in the past
  • Allows more accurate modelling of sports facilities supply and demand and assists public and private organisations with the effective monitoring and planning of sports facility provision.

Richard Caborn, Minister of Sport welcomed the launch of Active Places Power stating: 'Local councils and sports organisations now have access to a first-of-it's-kind planning tool which will highlight where there are gaps in facilities in our towns and cities. With this in place, councils won't need to carry out costly audits of what exists ' they can just look at Active Places'.

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