BW proposals based on misuse of statistics

BW has misrepresented its own statistics in order to make a case for the proposals finalised in the Local Mooring Strategies consultation. These proposals were based on analysis of statistics about “continuous cruisers” presented in the pre-consultation document Updating BW’s Online Mooring Policy (April 2009).

BW asserted that its count of total sightings of continuously cruising boats seen between October 2008 and March 2009 demonstrated that at least 70% of continuous cruisers were consistently observed in a relatively small geographic area.

Pulling teeth or… trying to get information from Bristish Waterways

Having read this claim, I made a Freedom of Information request to BW for its analysis of its boat sighting figures referred to in the pre-consultation document. BW refused giving the reason:

“The analysis data that you have requested is, at present, in the form of boat sightings. This data is personal information and as such is exempt from disclosure under Section 40 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

The above document is work in progress and not for formal public consultation. When we do publish a consultation document on the subject, we will ensure that supporting data is collated in such a way as to be available to the public.”

BW broke this promise – when the consultations were published in November 2009, BW did not provide any supporting data.

I asked BW to carry out an internal review of the refusal to supply the information I requested (see Your Right to Know by Friends of the Earth, on this web site), saying that I did not wish to see personal information such as boat sightings, but wished to obtain BW’s analysis of this boat sighting data. I have since discovered that boat sightings are not personal information under the Freedom of Information Act. As a result of the internal review, BW sent me this set of figures regarding boat sightings 6 month boat sightings, with no further explanation or analysis, presumably hoping I would not be able to understand it.

British Waterways play Sudoku with our lives

The figures showed the number of canals a boat was seen on; the number of boat sightings carried out, and the number of boats seen. For example, 311 boats were seen on one canal twice, and one boat was seen on 8 different canals 14 times.

BW’s claim that 70% of continuous cruisers remained in a relatively small geographic area is nonsense. The figures showed that out of 3634 boats, 2645 (72%) were only seen on one canal. This is meaningless. One canal can be 137 miles long, like the Grand Union, or 3¾ miles long, like the Huddersfield Broad; one geographic area may have one canal, such as Bath, or many canals, such as Birmingham. Of the total boats recorded, only 433 (11.9%) were seen more than 15 times on the same canal over a six month period.

BW did not define what it meant by a “relatively small geographic area” and failed to point out that the 1995 British Waterways Act does not prohibit boats remaining within a particular geographic area. This is a misrepresentation of the situation. BW labels boats which are exercising their statutory right to cruise without a home mooring as a problem and uses this misrepresentation to justify its proposals. BW has a duty to make sure that there is enough 14-day mooring space through dredging, vegetation control and bank maintenance so that people can continue to exercise those rights.

BW did not publish any statistics associated with the recent consultations about the numbers of boats which do not comply with the 1995 Act by staying more than 14 days in any one place. This information, together with a strategy to address overstaying in contravention of the 14-day rule, would be more helpful than a set of proposals based on unfounded assertions and statistical analysis founded on a false premise.

Going by the total of 3634 boats, the sightings recorded between October 2008 and March 2009 included all continuously cruising boats which took winter moorings. This was plainly dishonest. BW did not specify how many of these boats had winter moorings. Furthermore, this analysis was based on boat sightings made over a period when stoppages, ice, short daylight hours, restrictions on the opening hours of staffed structures, high water levels on river sections and bad weather frequently prevent boats from cruising long distances. In addition, BW did not specify how many of these boats had permission to remain in one place due to exceptional circumstances such as mechanical breakdown, bereavement or illness. It did not mention how many boats are restricted in their cruising range because the canal is no longer dredged to a depth that will allow them to travel extensively. Nor did it specify the relationship between each of these sightings and each stoppage, or between the sightings and any of the other factors mentioned.

Pulling the Teeth

Dear Ms Young,

I am writing regarding your refusal, dated May 1 2009, to provide the information which I asked for under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 which I made to you by email on 27 April.

I do not think you have properly considered my request for information and I would be grateful if you could refer your refusal to an internal review and consider this as a complaint in accordance with BW’s complaints procedure. The nature of my complaint is set out below.

On 27 April I asked for ‘a copy of the analysis of BW’s boat sighting data between October 2008 and March 2009 referred to on page 5 of the document Updating BW’s Online Mooring Policy (England & Wales) 2009: Briefing for User Groups April 2009’

You replied that “The analysis data that you have requested is, at present, in the form of boat sightings. This data is personal information and as such is exempt from disclosure under Section 40 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000”.

Page 5 of the above-mentioned document refers to “the analysis of BW’s boat sighting data between October 2008 and March 2009” (my italics). If BW has carried out analysis of its boat sighting data, this is not the same as original data in the form of boat sightings. I do not wish to see personal information such as boat sightings. I wish to obtain BW’s analysis of this boat sighting data. If any personal information such as boat names appears in the analysis please black this out before sending it to me. This is simple to do using most word-processing programmes.

Please could you provide me with a copy of the analysis that BW carried out of its boat sighting data between October 2008 and March 2009 for the above pre-consultation document with any personal information blacked out.

Please treat this further request for information as a request under the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

An deeper analysis of their data

We should not take BW’s analysis of its boat sighting data at face value. I have a copy of BW’s count of total sightings of continuously cruising boats seen between October 2008 and March 20091. These figures do not demonstrate that 70% of continuous cruisers were consistently observed in a relatively small geographic area. BW does not define what it means by “a relatively small geographic area”. The figures show that out of 3634 boats, 2645 (72%) were only seen on one canal. This is meaningless. One canal can be 137 miles long, like the Grand Union, or 3¾ miles long, like the Huddersfield Broad. Of this total, only 433 (11.9%) were seen more than 15 times on the same canal over a six month period.

Going by the total of 3634 boats, these sightings recorded between October 2008 and March 2009 include all continuously cruising boats which took winter moorings. This is plainly dishonest. BW has not specifed how many of these boats had winter moorings.

It is easy for BW to make any assertion it chooses about its information on boat sightings since the Data Protection Act means that records of personal data such as individual boat sightings cannot be published.

A small leap into the looking glass world

BW considers that a number of boats registered as continuous cruisers are “non-compliant” because they do not travel according to the Mooring Guidance for Continuous Cruisers. This guidance does not have the force of law, and this is clearly stated within the guidance. BW would be acting ultra vires (beyond its powers) if it attempted to enforce compliance with the Mooring Guidance for Continuous Cruisers. This document is not the law, it is BW’s interpretation of Section 17 (3) (c) of the British Waterways Act 1995. The 1995 Act does not prohibit boats from “lingering” within a “relatively small geographic area”, and nor does it specify that navigation must consist of a “progressive journey”. Most boats comply with Section 17 (3) (c) of the British Waterways Act 1995 and BW does have the power to enforce compliance with the 1995 Act when boats do not comply. BW should gather and publish information about the numbers of boats which do not comply with the 1995 Act, not about those who do not travel according to the Mooring Guidance for Continuous Cruisers, and take action based on that information.

Rather than taking action to enforce Section 17 (3) (c) of the 1995 British Waterways Act, which it admits does not generate any income, BW is proposing to increase its income by acting beyond its powers.

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One Response to “BW proposals based on misuse of statistics”

  1. Biddy MonsterID Icon Biddy says:

    Yes. BW south west are very reluctant to disclose information that a public authority is legally required to, and ‘pulling teeth’ is an excellent analogy. The CC guidelines, and BW’s insistance on compliance with ANY part of it, are indeed beyond legal remit.

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