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Poor mapping data is harming the UK's democracy

Image credit: from the collections of the British Library, via Bristol Know Your Place

We want to do something simple. We want to let everyone in the UK know what elections they are able to vote in on the 5th of May.

That’s it. Do I, an eligible voter in a country that is proud of its old democracy, have an election in the next 10 weeks, or not?

The good

We’re in a good position in that we now have open postcode to geographical positioning data in the form of Code Point Open. This allows us to make a form on a web site that says “enter your postcode” and turn this into a point on a map. Amazingly, this is quite a new ability in the UK!

Now we have a point on a map, we need to know what administrative areas that point is inside. We can do this for the following elections:

  • Police and Crime Commissioners (All of the England and Wales, apart from London)
  • London Mayor and GLA elections (London areas)
  • Welsh, Scottish and Northern Ireland elections

This is only possible because we have data on these areas in a format that can be imported into a database and queried, published by Office for National Statistics (ONS). This is really useful, and lets us do a huge amount without having to be inside government, or pay tonnes of money. For example, without this, we couldn’t have built Go Open Data!

The Bad

Local elections are much harder. We can do about 90% of them, however some areas have been subject to boundary changes in the last year.

The process of changing boundaries is quite open, as you can see on this page about the changes in Bristol

All this is managed by a government body called Local Government Boundary Commission for England.

They draw out new boundaries and then give the shapes (the exact ones that we need, as above) to, in this case, Bristol Council. They also give it to Ordnance Survey (OS), who use it in their free to use database of areas that we use.

So far, so good…

The Ugly

The Local Government Boundary Commission for England (LGBCE) don’t publish the work that they do in the format that we need.

ONS and OS, who each publish this data, aren’t very fast at doing so. For example, the changes to Bristol were finished On the 12th of May 2015, but they still don’t appear in the datasets provided.

You can see this on OS’s “Election Maps” web site – they list areas in Bristol that no longer exist, and therefore won’t be used in the upcoming elections.

I called LGBCE asking for the data directly, but they say they can’t because of the OS-imposed licence. This is the same OS who will, quite soon, publish the data in the open anyway.

According to LGBCE, the council have the data, but don’t seem to have published it on their “Open Data Portal” (that I can find).

I’m writing this while waiting for someone from Bristol to call me back, where I’m going to try to convince them that they should email me the data.

However, there are numerous other councils that have changes, so the battle is far from over.

Should OS and ONS be stepping in and publishing this data? They have published updates to their products since the changes have been made by LGBCE, but for some reason they don’t contain the changes.

Maybe LGBCE should publish their data by default, so that we don’t need to rely on ONS/OS to update their products? JeniT seems to think this should be possible:

Can you help us make this happen?


Our friend Terence Eden (@edent) was blogging about this 7 years ago:

Read his post here:

More from @dracos

Update 2

After OS replied below, we’ve published a full blog post to comment

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