It’s election day. It’s late, and you’re tired. Because in the UK, elections, unlike royal weddings, don’t warrant a day off work, so you’ve only just got home. Somewhere is a small piece of card that was delivered to your house several weeks ago that had the address of your polling station, and a little map of where it is. But now you can’t find it, you’re searching under the sofa and in that drawer in the kitchen, but it’s gone.
Sound at all familiar?
At Democracy Club, we think knowing where you should go to vote is an important early step in the voting process. And in an age where you’re a click away from finding your local takeaway, people do expect this information to be available online.
Unfortunately, when you try googling for your Polling Station in the UK, that information often doesn’t exist online or is inaccurate. The official advice is to call your council - imagine if everyone who didn’t know their polling station actually did that!
This is why we created pollingstations.democracyclub.org.uk. The idea is simple - a web page where you enter your address, and it tells you where you should go to vote. Not only that, but it provides the underlying data to anyone else who wants to make use of it - for councils to embed in their own websites or for things we haven’t even imagined yet.
Making this simple idea a reality turns out to be quite complicated. There is no single institution in the UK that is responsible for administering Polling Stations - they are run by each of the 400 or so individual local councils. We’ve been working hard, assisted by our friend @JoannaUK from Twitter to send Freedom of Information requests to every council so that we can know where everyone should go to vote.
Some of the councils have been incredibly helpful - for instance Lambeth and Bristol already publish this information online as Open Data. This makes creating tools like pollingstations.democracyclub.org.uk much easier, enabling organisations like Democracy Club to spend more time creating tools for citizens.
Unfortunately, not every council has been so helpful. Some were concerned that they weren’t able to give us the information we needed because of copyright or licensing issues - despite the guidance from organisations like ONS stating quite clearly that they could. Others claimed not to have the information in a suitable format for release, or claimed that they didn’t want to give it to us “In case the information changed subsequently”.
This means that at the moment pollingstations.democracyclub.org.uk can only tell about 5% of the country where they should vote. For the other 95% we have the next best thing - which is the phone number of the local council - so you can phone them up to ask where your Polling Station is.
Looking ahead, beyond the 2015 General Election, we plan to expand our coverage significantly - because we believe that “Where should I vote” is a really important practical question! We’d like to work closely with councils so that for future elections, finding out where to vote is something you can do simply and quickly online.
If you’d like to help us make this a reality - or you’d like to follow our progress, please join Democracy Club here.