This is a nice room. Shame we don’t know who sits in it
We’re doing our bit for European Local Democracy Week by thinking about how we might get more information on representatives in the UK. We think that access to good information is vital to a well functioning democracy, and providing accessible information on representatives is a good step in the right direction.
The idea is to spend a week learning about what’s involved, writing some code, talking to partners and working out if there’s a sustainable model for running something in the long term.
If you’re interested in this, get in touch.
Here’s some questions we want to answer. We’ll try to write answers to all of these in the FridayBlog.
1. Is it useful for us to do anything?
We don’t want to start our own thing just for the sake of it, so we need to work out how best to help each other. Step one of this was to start talking to as many people as we could find. That turned into a
#Councillors room in our Slack and we’re meeting up in person on Wednesday.
2. What’s the scope?
There are a lot of types of elected representatives in the UK, from Westminster MPs through to parish councillors. What should we try to cover? MPs are accounted for because Parliament publishes good data on them already. For our candidates crowdsourcing we cover councils, as well as Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies, Scottish Parliament, Police & Crime Commissioners, Combined Authority/Regional Mayors, Directly elected District mayors and the Greater London Authority. This seems like a good list for us to aim for, but we don’t know what problems / challenges exist for each. It’s reasonable to assume that councillors are the hardest because they represent the largest number of people over the most organisations.
3. How hard is it?
What might this even involve? Here’s what we (think we) know:
- There is no single state-provided list of all councillors in the UK anywhere
- Each council publishes lists of their councillors online (it would be interesting to know of any that don’t)
- Lists of councillors are published in many different ways, however there are a couple of council website vendors that make up a large percentage of all council websites, with a ‘long tail’ of councils that use their own formats – more on this later in the week.
- Getting the URL to all the lists of councillors might be tricky – again, more on this later in the week
Here’s some things we don’t know a lot about yet:
- How often does the information change? We already track all by-elections, so we have a fair idea of how many elections there are (we can never be sure if we’ve missed some), but it’s still useful to know if a councillor changes party, or even if their job title changes (e.g. they move off the planning committee). Email addresses might change if someone changes their name.
- What information is useful to people? We have a fair idea that there is demand for email addresses, but we might find that registers of interests, meeting attendance, surgery times or something else is useful. The job of getting a list of names is one thing, but is the job of getting other useful information the same effort?
How hard is it to standardise? To be useful, we will want to match councillors to parties and wards at least. We know that councils don’t use official names for parties (“Tory” or “Conservative” rather than “The Conservative and Unionist Party”; “Labour” even if the councillor stood for “Labour and Co-operative Party” under a joint candidacy).
For ward names, we’ve found when importing results that some councils don’t use the correct ward names, sometimes spelling them wrong, using “place name south” rather than “south place name” and so on. We also don’t know how they deal with ward boundary changes, merged wards before an election is held, and a depressingly long list of edge cases that we’ve not thought about yet.
How timely is the data? How quickly after an election are the lists updated? How quickly would users want data? How can we mark something as out of date when we think it’s likely to be stale (when we know there’s been an election, but we’ve seen no change)? We might run in to our old friends Ordnance Survey and ONS here, as information about some areas won’t be published until councillors are elected and doing their jobs.
4. Who might pay for it?
We suspect there are some groups who might want to help chip in to maintaining the data:
- Campaign groups. WriteToThem is a great tool that’s already used by campaigners and already has councillors emails in. We might be able to ask campaigns who want email addresses directly to pay a small amount.
- Journalists. Maybe not for emailing councillors, but for stories around registers of interests, meetings attended, things said etc might be interesting. There’s also stories about longest serving, oldest, youngest, gender, etc that might get some attention.
- Academics. There are loads of interesting things to be studied about local authorities, and councillors are bound to play a part in that. A “commons”-style resource full of information is more sensible than each researcher creating one themselves.
There will be a lot more questions over the week, I’m sure. We’ll try to have answers to some of them by Friday, and an idea of what (if anything) we plan to do next. As ever, get in touch if you’re interested in chatting about any of this!
Next post: finding official lists of representatives!