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Ordnance Survey are getting in the way of open election data

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Briefly…

The Local Government Boundary Commission for England (LGBCE) created data about elections months ago and Ordnance Survey are getting in the way by blocking its publication until after the elections in May. This means we can’t tell millions of people what elections they have this May.

The electoral boundary data created by the LGBCE can’t be published due to Ordnance Survey’s litigious enforcing of their complex licensing. Ordnance Survey play no part in creating the data but get given it by the LGBCE. Ordnance Survey then withhold it from the public until it fits with their six-monthly publication cycle. The problem is that the next publication isn’t until after the elections the data relates to.

More details…

The Local Government Boundary Commission for England (LGBCE) performs a review of local political boundaries and makes suggestions about boundary changes based on population changes and other criteria.

When boundaries change, an election is held in order to elect new councillors to the new areas. In those elections voters need the best information they can get so that they can make a good decision about who represents them.

Democracy Club, and others, can only establish the new area that a household lies within by having access to the data that the LGBCE creates. Democracy Club needs that data to do one simple thing: tell voters in the UK what elections they have in May.

Ordnance Survey prevents LGBCE from publishing the data themselves because OS claim the data is based on their proprietary maps.

Democracy Club have tried to use the Freedom Of Information Act to extract this data from Ordnance Survey, twice. Last year, they published the data before the elections and after our FOI, but claimed the two were unrelated.

This year they have rejected the request and are simply refusing to publish the data. They say:

I can confirm that Ordnance Survey does hold this information. However we consider that the exemption in section 22 (information intended for future publication) of the FOIA applies to the information that you have requested. This is because the information is intended for publication at a future date.

In other words, because it will published after the elections, they are exempt from publishing it before the elections.

They go on to say:

Section 22 is a qualified exemption and therefore Ordnance Survey has to assess whether the public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighs the public interest in disclosing the information ahead of planned schedule. We recognise that there is a public interest in making the shapefiles showing the geographical extent of the new boundaries available prior to the scheduled publication, in respect of promoting public understanding and involvement in the democratic process with regard to the new boundary lines. However, this information is scheduled to be released in accordance with the scheduled update cycle of the OS OpenData Boundary-Line product.

In other words, their business process outweighs the public interest.

Because Ordnance Survey are blocking this publication, about 13 million people in 20 local authorities won’t be able to use the Electoral Commission’s ‘YourVoteMatters’ website, powered by Democracy Club’s services that will let people find out what elections and candidates they have.

Democracy Club have requested an internal review of the decision to reject the publication, but Ordnance Survey say that this might not be complete before 14 April. If Ordnance Survey uphold their decision then Democracy Club will appeal to the Information Commissioner. It’s unlikely that this will be resolved in time for the elections in May, but it might help in future years.

Democracy Club is working hard to make the democratic process more user-friendly. We need wins on issues like this. To help us out with this and more, please join the club / chip in what you can!

Photo credit: http://lotr.wikia.com/wiki/File:Smaug_by_Einen.png