Following the recent floods and water shortages in Gloucestershire and Worcestershire, thousands of residents found themselves without mains water and forced to rely on the bowsers - or temporary water tanks - distributed by Severn Trent Water.
"When the water was first switched off, we were at work ourselves and trying to find the bowsers nearest to our homes", says Ben Jeffery, one of the directors at Bluelinemedia. "Severn Trent published a list of locations on their website, but it meant having to read every street name, remember where that was, and work out which was your nearest bowser. It seemed obvious to us that with a map of locations you could find your nearest bowser immediately, so we decided to produce one ourselves".
Creating a custom website map
Word quickly spread as Bluelinemedia staff emailed friends and clients, who in turn forwarded the email to other people in the region. "So far we've had around 4000 people visit our online maps", points out Ben. "Lots of other websites like BBC Gloucestershire and Cheltenham Borough Council have also linked to us because they think it's useful to their own site visitors."
Bluelinemedia leapt at the chance to provide some help to residents in their local area. "We wanted to do something, and we were able to produce this map because it suits our web and software skills perfectly," says Ben. "Our clients often ask us to develop very specific website tools for their needs, and this is just the kind of project we deal with all the time."
Feedback from people using the site also allowed Bluelinemedia to update the maps so that they provided a more complete and up to date picture of bowser and free bottled water locations. "We've recently added three bottled water locations in Stroud which aren't actually on the Severn Trent website yet, so our maps are currently more accurate than the official list," claims Ben. "We even had a local government agency ask us to produce a printable map for their own use."
Local residents have been in touch to thank Bluelinemedia for providing the resource, and suggest that Severn Trent Water should have provided the map themselves. "One person even suggested we should bill Severn Trent for the work!" Ben notes. "The Severn Trent list of locations had all the information, but it wasn't really presented in the best way. Our maps just took the data and provided it in a simple and immediate form that people could use more quickly."
How we developed our website map
The process of mapping bowser locations manually was not a simple one. "We were working from the same list as everyone else, so we just had a list of descriptions," says company director Simon Jackson, who managed the project. "Google Maps works from longitude and latitude references, so first we had to place every location on the map. This meant reading the description, finding the position on the map, and putting the grid references into a new database."
Finding bowser locations was not always easy. "Some of the descriptions were just junctions of two roads and fairly easy to find," explains Simon. "For others we had to use online satellite pictures and literally look for the right position by finding a school, car park or even a grass verge."
Bluelinemedia created a web page incorporating the Google Maps tool and the location data, producing a series of maps marking bowsers in each area. This information was then updated as residents got in touch with more specific locations or pointed out new or missing bowsers.
Web mapping of text data
Using Google Maps in this way has a lot of other applications for businesses, according to Ben Jeffery. "We are currently using something similar for a website selling wine and beer online, which plots the location of various vineyards and other suppliers so customers can learn more about the products they're buying. The possibilities for business websites really are endless, from giving customers more information to providing tools to help staff do their jobs more easily."
Other bespoke Bluelinemedia projects include a dynamic advent calendar for Gloucestershire Constabulary.
Examples could include estate agents displaying houses for sale, couriers working out the most efficient delivery routes, and manufacturers showing their nearest distributor. "This kind of online tool is special because it gives people much greater control and creates a whole new use out of existing internet resources," Ben continues. "Our maps genuinely made it easier for people to find their nearest bowser and carry on with their lives as normal. Similar tools online could mean a vast improvement on how businesses communicate with their staff and customers, and make life easier for everybody."