Taking Responsibility for Data

One of my early aims for the local election website was to list each candidate, along with party and website, directly on the page. It seemed right that – if I were promoting ease of access – that this should be a basic requirement.

Pretty quickly it became clear that this was an ambitious task - most of the 2000+ wards are in PDF format, some in Word and a tiny minority in HTML. The PDFs are not easily readable (aside – I’d love to know how they fare for disability discrimination tests) so any hope of automating the process went out of the window.

I simply didn’t have the time either. It took two days just to get the links together. A conservative estimate of one minute per document would have me working another week just to get the local elections up.

The bigger problem is liability. While I have rightly disclaimed that there are probably errors, and that users should double-check the council website, trying to present concise summary information based on copy & paste would be risking making mistakes. Disclaimers can probably help protect me against anybody getting nasty, but I neither want the hassle nor the exposure.

With the links as-is, there is a failsafe of sorts. Each linked PDF has the ward and constituency listed at the top of the page. If the viewer sees the wrong name, they know something is amiss.

If I were to put a candidate in the wrong political party, or list the party in the wrong election, the user would have little reason to doubt the results. There is no failsafe.

Had I had more time I might have tried to put something together that enabled a community effort. There are plenty of people out there who support this kind of stuff and would likely donate some time and effort. This additional manpower – mixed with proper QA – could help reduce the risk.

However, I still think a decent dataset from central government and/or local governments would be the ideal solution. They are likely going to take considerable measures to ensure the data is correct, and the candidates will undoubtedly be referring to their lists for completeness and instantly feeding back corrections.

One of the strong benefits of opening data is that the economics can be changed. Effort need not be duplicated; we largely eliminate human error. Time spent recreating these lists is time wasted.

UK Elections in May

Introducing the Elections 2014 site – find local candidates by simply entering your postcode.

Come May 22 this year, many residents in the UK will be going to the polling stations to elect their representative in the European Parliament. Many local councils will also be electing some or all of their councillors, and some areas will also be choosing their mayor or parish/town councillor.

If you are registered to vote, you should receive a polling card through the post. These tell you where and when to go to cast your vote, and which votes you can cast. The polling cards don’t tell you who the candidates are – these are usually finalised just a few weeks before the election.

Some may have already decided who gets their vote. Others will be unsure. I have a party preference based on policies which I broadly agree with, but am by no means a staunch supporter. Voters might also vote nationally for one party, and locally for another – or choose to put their support behind independent campaigners.

Frankly it all becomes a little bewildering, and there doesn’t appear to be a single definitive source of election material. We’ve had flyers from two parties so far and nobody has knocked the door. Websites such as ElectionLeaflets.org attempt to collect flyers from all the campaigns, but they’re by no means comprehensive.

The local council are supposed to provide notice of forthcoming elections on their website, both announcing the election and stating the candidates. In the age of the Internet, this is undoubtedly a good thing – but goodness me, they’re tough to find. Almost all are in PDF, some in Word and more than a few are embarrassingly hard to uncover.

The humble voter – wanting to make an informed decision – is left bewildered. I would dearly love to be proven wrong, but as far as I can tell nobody has created a single source of election candidates. There is nowhere we can go to review the choices and make an informed decision prior to voting.

Presenting my super-duper Election 2014 site. Pop in your postcode, et voila – a list of candidates for local, mayoral and European elections handily presented in (almost) one place.

The caveat is unfortunately something I’m unlikely to be able to fix in a hurry. I would have loved to put all options on a single page but it took nearly two days just to get the links together. Getting all candidates in one big database is going to take weeks of effort, and the elections are little over a fortnight away.

There are a few gotchas. Unfortunately some election boundaries were applied earlier this year and the Office of National Statistics has not yet provided an update (and they tell me it’ll be released ‘around the end of May’ – great). Parish/town council elections are also unlisted but I’ve tried to note them where possible – a high proportion are uncontested anyway.

All in, I think this is a decent step towards my goal. Hopefully other organisations might be interested in picking up the baton in time for the next elections (if they don’t already have plans). At least one possibility is to open the database up to public edits Wikipedia-style, but I think we’ve missed the boat for May 22.

Please, let me know what you think. If you find it useful, interesting or worthwhile please spread the word.