Tag: Politics (Page 1 of 2)

The cost of online voting

A new report by Webroots UK on the cost of online voting in UK national elections was published last week. The report was backed by politicians from four large political parties — Labour, Conservatives, SNP and the Liberal Democrats. It is about one of our most fundamental democratic rights. It deserves debate.

The report argued that online voting would increase the number of voters and reduce costs by 26% per vote. Unfortunately it missed significant risks and argued for saving costs by making it harder for millions of mostly disadvantaged UK citizens to exercise their democratic rights. Rather than arguing to reduce the cost of democracy, we should be arguing to make it better.

The risks and decisions of online voting

One of the classic lines about online voting is that people can safely bank online so they should be able to safely vote online. An analogy that sounds useful but is unhelpful. Banking and voting are very different problems, carry different risks and societies make different decisions about them. To give three examples.

We are comfortable that banks and governments know us and can see how we spend money but want our votes to be secret. We choose to accept the risk that governments and banks might mistreat our finances, but are prepared to accept very little risk that governments and people might mistreat us because they know how we voted.The damage that could be caused is bigger and harder to undo. The risk is higher.

Meanwhile the damage caused by mistakes or manipulation of national elections is higher than in other types of election. The reward for successfully manipulating a national election will attract malicious attackers who will act for their own reasons at their chosen time.

Finally, there are risks alongside online voting. Multiple countries have seen online social media used to spread disinformation during elections. We are only just starting to understand how this happened, let alone understand the damage and what actions could reduce it. There is a risk that online voting will provide new ways for disinformation to have an impact.

These are the type of risks that people who want to introduce online voting for national elections need to consider and debate with society. We should make conscious decisions on whether or not to accept them.

4.7 million people or 15.2 million people

But even if we find an acceptable le online voting safe, or choose to accept the risks, there is another implicit argument in the report. That online voting will make it easier for up to 4.7 million people and reduce costs by making voting harder for up to 15.2 million people.

The report used a survey to argur that online voting would increase the number of voters by up to 4.7 million. These are people who do not currently go to polling stations (the places where people can vote in person) but would vote online. This would lead to a cut in administration costs by reducing the number of polling stations or reducing mailing costs by moving election material online. We will need less of these as some people vote online.

It failed to discuss how many people do rely and will continue to rely on paper voting and electoral information. As the UK’s Goverment Digital Service recently said “paper isn’t going to go away”.

A report published by the Good Things Foundation said that 15.2 million people in the UK are either non-users, or limited users of the internet, that 7.5 million of those people are under the age of 75, and that 90% of non-users can be classed as disadvantaged.

The cost reduction measures in the Webroots report will make voting harder for these millions. They will have further to travel and find it harder to get information about who to vote for.

Politics is about choices. What gets done and what does not get done. Who wins and who doesn’t. I’m surprised that politicians from these major parties appear to favour the advantaged over the disadvantaged. Why they find it appropriate to reduce the quality of service for so many.

Rather than arguing for an online service or cost reduction, argue for a better service

The Webroots report is fundamentally starting from the wrong place. It is arguing for an online service that will reduce cost, rather than arguing to improve the quality of service. Unfortunately this is a common approach when using modern technology to improve existing public services.

The UK Parliament’s new e-petitions service only offers the ability to share a petition via social media and provides no way to combine online petitions with paper petitions that are hand-signed in communities. While the logical conclusion of wanting to make elections cheaper is to simply “do less” and cancel elections. Perhaps we could use an algorithm and some data.

Doing the hard work of research and experimentation to discover how to improvr democracy using modern technology in a number of ways, as organisations like Democracy Club do, is more useful.

We will find that we can and should use modern technology to improve democracy for everyone such as through online voting, better designed forms, making it easier to find a polling station, tools to help polling station staff, and a whole host of other things that might make democracy better.

As we make those improvements we should take the opportunity to have a more informed debate over the risks and who benefits, but we shouldn’t focus solely on online services and cost reduction we should make democracy better for everyone.

As the Electoral Commission said in their recent report on the experiences of disabled people in the last UK election:

Some of the changes which people have told us would make registering to vote and voting easier would cost more money. But we would like to see things changed so everyone can register to vote and vote.

That sounds good. Doesn’t it?

Make data great again

Data is becoming increasingly important to our societies. We live in an age of data abundance and, without many of us realising, data has become a new type of infrastructure and a critical one at that. The age of data abundance has led to brilliant new services and can help our societies tackle challenges such as climate change and population growth, but it also creates risks to privacy and concentrations of power.

Societies need to be able to debate what this age of data abundance means for them. People need to make decisions about the relationship between individuals, communities, societies and data. We need to pick a future vision for our relationship with data and then make steps towards it. Many governments and societies are having this debate now.

In my job I put forward the Open Data Institute’s position on those decisions while also trying to encourage a more public debate. I want a debate because I, and the lovely people I work with, want the decision to be made by societies around the world.

To make this debate as broad and informed as possible, I need what I say to be understandable by as many people as possible. I try to use plain language and frequently test new language and concepts to see if they are understandable. Sometimes I test things through tweets or blogs, like this one, at other times by talking with people from differing backgrounds and perspectives.

By testing, listening and learning I have made some of the language more accessible but I’ve also realised that something was more important than I first thought: politics. Both my politics and that of others.

Let me try and explain.

Choices about data

Sometimes people say they want to help people make better choices about data. I did that a few times in this blog about an open future for data.

I was talking about the ideas in that blog with a left-wing British politican who stopped me mid-sentence and asked if I was a Blairite nowadays. No, I replied. “Then why are you using the language of Blair’s choice agenda?”, they asked.

image copyright the BBC. Taken from a blog stating that the comedy show Yes (Prime) Minister, was the most cunning political propaganda ever conceived

Further testing of the language caused another person to recoil and suggest that if I kept talking about choices I might be accused of being a secret Thatcherite pushing the theory of public choice. Hmm….

I’d used the word ‘choice’ because I thought it was plain language but it was clear that the decision risked putting in place a political barrier for some of the other ideas in the blog. This is a problem.

Data is political

When thinking about and debating technology and data with other technologists it can be easy to fall into a trap of thinking that every decision can be based on empirical evidence, that there is a single right answer and that we can make that right answer a reality by designing and building the right technology. This is nonsense.

In our debates about data we need to decide issues of access, ownership, regulation and the relationship between citizens and the state. These are political decisions.

Whilst we might have individual opinions about data we need a state and legal system to help put decisions into practice. States will allow technologists to innovate and try things out but there comes a time when existing legislation will be more strongly applied or new legislation will be put in place as society’s needs change. This happened and continues to happen with road traffic, it will happen with data.

By broadening the debate we are helping that decision to be made democratically. Democracy might have seemed under strain in some countries in 2016 but as Churchill said:

Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time

To put it more simply politics and democracy is important and data, as with most things, is political.

Words already carry political meaning

The “white heat of technology” makes me think of Harold Wilson and the 1960s UK Labour party. Because of my political history I have positive feelings about the phrase despite the speech being followed by the scrapping of several high-profile technology projects. Image copyright PA.

Words are a tool political people use to reach our hearts. Sometimes those words are a catchy slogan. At other times it’s a frame: a guiding metaphor or image for a political argument.

Political slogans and language are designed to appeal to a group of people, build on existing beliefs and make them choose a particular path.

Some words carry a particular meaning in the present because they have been used in a political context in the past. Marx said it more poetically:

The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.

The word “choice” resonated amongst some people involved in British politics that I spoke to because of those traditions and their political history. It will have bought back nightmares for some and heavenly dreams for others.

Data is not about left or right wing politics

In economic terms each of these cakes is rivalrous: only one person can eat them. Cake is not like data, multiple people can use data at the same time. Picture of cake by Hani AlYousif, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Our societies and political systems are used to making political decisions about many types of resources, for example oil or water, but data has different qualities to the physical resources that are embedded in our political systems, debates and legislation.

To give two regularly used examples: data is non-rivalrous, unlike a piece of cake many people can use data at the same time, and data benefits from network effects, it becomes more valuable as more people use and maintain it.

These differences are one of the reasons the team at the Open Data Institute talk about data as analogous to roads:

Data is infrastructure. Just like roads. Roads help us navigate to a location. Data helps us make a decision.

The “data is roads” analogy breaks people out of the traditional mindset. It helps open their minds to thinking differently.

I think that, as with the web, these different qualities mean that a closed-open axis is a more useful way of thinking than the traditional left and right-wing political axis.

But it will be harder to get people to think about the decisions along that closed-open axis if our words and ideas cause them to think of old left and right wing political battles.

Take back control of data

Data has many other different qualities to other resources. One that is becoming increasingly evident and important is that data is sometimes about identifiable people, sometimes it isn’t and sometimes it’s a bit complicated.

Much of the current debate about data is dominated by personal data: the stuff which is about identifiable people. Many people believe that there is an asymmetry of power and privacy as data about us is controlled by governments and corporations.

Tav Kotka, the Estonian Chief Information Officer, at MyData 2016 in Helsinki. Watch the full video.

Tav Kotka, the Chief Information Officer of Estonia, recently gave a talk in which he broached the idea of adding a fifth freedom to the EU’s existing four freedoms for free movement of goods, workers, services and capital. The talk was mostly about personal data and the concept of personal data stores that could allow individuals to control how data about them is used.

Whilst I agree that more personal control over personal data is important the talk bought up memories of Margaret Thatcher and my teenage political nightmares. The talk did not mention society’s need to access and use that data. Taking back control of data by giving control to individuals misses out the challenges of digital inclusion and the role of other important parts of society like families, communities and nations. Different levels of control, rights and responsibilities are likely to need to given to these different groups. To give just one example vital medical research and national statistics need to use large amounts of personal data, this can’t be neglected or left solely to the decisions of individuals.

But, as I realised, this time I was the one allowing my political history to do the interpretation for me and I was the one who wasn’t listening to the underlying argument. Tav Kotka was using language that built on his political history while talking in English to a Finnish audience. Even though I work for a global organisation my initial reaction was from a UK perspective. My bad.

The political debate about data is happening now

The EU is currently discussing complex concepts such as data control and data ownership through the free flow of data initiative. Major geopolitical organisations, like the EU, can have a large impact on countries outside their membership, the UK government has committed to following current EU data protection regulation after it exits the EU. That EU debate involves politicians from multiple countries, each with their own rich histories and perspectives. There are many other debates in countries around the world.

If you want to help build a great future for data then as well as building new services you may want to get involved in either this or other multinational, national and local debates.

But if you do, remember to think about politics: both other people’s politics and your own. That way you will be best placed to help people think about the decisions not in terms of traditional left and right-wing politics but instead in terms more suited to the different challenges and possibilities of data.

Seven maps that show the anatomy of America’s vast infrastructure and one blank map


The Washington Post had an article the other day on six maps that show the anatomy of America’s vast infrastructure: the electric grid; bridges; pipelines; railroads; airports; and ports and inland waterways. The article has beautiful pictures of these big, important things that make it possible for society to work for as many people as it does.

All of the maps were created using data from OpenStreetMap. OpenStreetMap is brilliant. A map of the world that is collaboratively maintained and free for people to use. OpenStreetMap is also part of a new type of infrastructure, one made of data. That data infrastructure also underpins our society in the same way that other more visible bits of infrastructure do.

Data helps engineers understand where physical infrastructure is needed, what capacity is required and how to build it safely. Data, like maps or journey planners, helps people discover and use infrastructure. It does many more things too, even if some may seem a little weird.

Without data infrastructure, and without it being so easy to use, then the Washington Post might not have printed those beautiful pictures; engineers wouldn’t find it as easy to plan and build physical infrastructure; and people wouldn’t find it as easy to use that infrastructure.

A seventh map

A map of open address data for the USA courtesy of openaddresses.io

As well as the six maps that the Washington Post chose they could have used this one from openaddresses.io. Every dot is an address.

It’s a bit patchier than the other maps that the Washington Post showed as some USA address data is not openly available. Either the data doesn’t exist or it us kept behind pay walls which makes it hard to use. This is a problem. Everything happens somewhere and addresses help us locate all of those somewheres wherever they are in the world. This data is vital infrastructure and must be freely available for anyone to use.

Luckily data infrastructure is a lot cheaper and quicker to build than roads and waterways. The US government recognises the benefits of making this data available and is working to do it.

A blank map

A map of open address data for the UK courtesy of openaddresses.io

In the title of this post I promised a blank map. It is not quite blank but there are no dots.

Address data for the UK is not openly available, it is locked behind paywalls. It is as if there were toll roads all over our road infrastructure. Just as fewer people would use roads if they had to pay a toll every few miles, fewer people use address data because of the paywalls. In both cases there is less social and economic impact.

Meanwhile the UK’s address data is not collaboratively maintained, like OpenStreetMap, and the quality suffers as a result. People who move into new build houses often discover that their address is missing from the lists stored in computers. They can’t order a pizza, a sofa or even register to vote. People know the address exists, it is the computers that don’t.

A couple of years ago I worked with a team of people trying to fix this. We failed. A team in the UK government are now trying to open up UK address data, I hope they succeed.

Data gets overlooked, even when a journalist is using it

Data infrastructure is part of the government’s responsibility in the same way as the other forms of infrastructure that the Washington Post wrote about. They are all vital infrastructure that underpins our society. They should be both protected and made widely available in exactly the same way.

Much of our data infrastructure is patchy or difficult to use. Things like maps, records of land ownership, ompany information, where and how we can vote.

Data infrastructure should also form part of the public debate alongside other forms of infrastructure. The danger is that data is misunderstood and overlooked, even when a journalist is using it to draw some beautiful pictures.

Data-driven politics

Both the EU referendum in the UK and the presidential election in the USA have generated a lot of debate over what influenced the results. They were close campaigns. There are many things that could have led to a different outcome. I’ve been particularly interested in the debate over the role played by technology, the web and data.

I think the debate is missing how politics risks becoming driven by data rather than informed by it.

Technology-driven progress, globalisation, fake news, social media, malicious and mischievous actors

Technology is a major strand in the debate about globalisation, nation states, jobs and inequality. The web and data are at their best when they are world-wide, open and know no boundaries but it is essential that we use technology-driven progress to build a better society for everyone.

Technology and the web play a big part in the increased consumption of news online and on social media rather than through more traditional media channels and in particular the changing economics of media and the rise of fake news.

Technology, the web and data are also present in the investigations into the potential role played by organisations and people that may be malicious, for example foreign governments, or simply mischievous. In the UK a report claimed that 1/3 of the tweets on the EU referendum in a one week period were created by bots.

Whilst debate about hacking and bots continues in other countries, such as Germany, this story seems to be at risk of slipping off the radar in the UK and USA. A more informed debate about their effects and purpose would seem useful.

But there’s a fourth element that I’m barely seeing debated at all. Data-driven politics.

Data-driven politics

Politics has always gathered and used data to help it make decisions. This data comes from door knocking, censuses, opinion polls, focus groups and election results. In our current age of data abundance there are ever more and cheaper ways for anyone to gather and use data. Some of the uses by political parties seem to be at risk of copying the worst excesses of online marketing.

In the UK Labour leadership contest in 2016 organisations such as Momentum and Saving Labour talked of capturing email addresses and the reach of their social media channels. Neither group has been open about who is in control of this data, whether it is secure from hacking or how it is used.

Following the UK’s referendum on the EU one of the Leave organisations, Vote.Leave, talked of its superior use of data and how it was used for targeted advertising. The BBC reported that:

“Their dream was of a system that could put information from Twitter, canvassing, polls, websites, apps, into one giant IT programme that would then churn out extremely sophisticated models that would reveal the areas most likely to vote Leave, down to the street.”

Other campaigns and political parties debunked their claims on twitter and proudly said their data tools collected more information. No one questioned whether either was appropriate or healthy for democracy.

The New Statesman reported on the plans of a UKIP funder to start a new political party saying he claimed that Leave.EU’s email database was “a goldmine to anyone doing digital campaigning”. No one asked if it was either legal or right to transfer this “goldmine” to a new political party.

In America the Trump campaign was talking about its heavy use of data before the campaign finished. One insider on the data team said:

“There’s really not that much of a difference between politics and regular marketing.”

I hope I’m not alone in thinking there should be a difference between politics and marketing.

The Trump team used Facebook to target particular adverts to discourage black Americans from voting. Following Trump’s victory there are reports of one of the major data analytics firms being employed on an ongoing basis by both the government and an ongoing Trump campaign organisation.

This increase in the use of data to both listen to and influence people in political debates raises a number of issues.

There are biases in data and in how we use data

Data has biases. This might occur because there are gaps in how we collect data: for example ~10–20% of the UK and US population are not online because of issues such as cost, disability, location or motivation. Data also includes the biases in society such as those affecting gender and race. Bias can also occur through the people who decide how to analyse data and code the algorithms. People write code and people are biased.

If our political parties increasingly use the web and data to get them over the electoral winning line then they are likely to focus their efforts on winning over groups that are well represented in the data and predictable by the algorithms. Other people may be ignored.

National slogans, targeted adverts

The recent campaigns hint at a trend towards very broad brush national slogans (Make America Great Again!, Take Back Control) coupled with targeted campaigns aimed at particular interest groups.

Someone working in the car industry living in the Northeast of England might see an advert telling them that a political party is supporting car factories in Sunderland but see nothing else about that party’s policies or beliefs. The political party can see how that person responds to the advert — whether they comment, share, like, or retweet it — and use that data to tailor their next advert.

Some of these campaigns will come through official channels but targeted campaigns will come from through social media adverts, local (sub-brand in marketing speak) or unoffical channels. Coupled with the ongoing loss of funding for and trust in national journalism this will make it ever more difficult for a coherent national debate where a society makes an informed choice about its future. Instead political parties will tell different groups of people what they think they want to hear based on data.

We risk becoming more fragmented and the importance of values and principles in politics could become ever weaker as politics becomes more data driven.

Now some of this type of political advertising occurs already but technology, the web and data allow it to happen at a larger scale and at a cheaper cost. I can only imagine the voices in political campaigns saying that this is a race and that the process must become faster and more automated through “smart” algorithms. As we have already seen in other sectors these algorithms risk embodying and multiplying the biases in the data.

Use of data in political campaigns will influence how politicians govern when in office

Finally, there is an ongoing debate about the use of data by governments and the private sector. This debate concerns the rights and responsibilities that people and organisations have when data is collected and used. There are calls for greater control by people and more scrutiny by regulators.

This debate needs to include political parties.

If our political parties believe that the only way to get elected is through the use of data and algorithms then they will use them. If that use is not questioned and people are not held to account then that use could be normalised. Politicians might carry those normalised beliefs into office and it risks affecting how they govern and how they legislate.

Data-driven politics

Politics can be improved by new technology, the web and data.

The web offers ways for more people to be engaged in politics and it gives them more tools to influence politics. The web can help with a transfer of power from the centre to communities and people. Data can provide better evidence for policies and make it possible for us to trial new policies before they are implemented on a large scale and at a big cost. Better use of data can help improve public services and the economy.

These things can be dazzling. But we need to recognise the risks. Not just that some technology innovation is pointless but also that some uses of technology are actively harmful. That they can harm individuals and communities and that copied wholesale into politics they can damage democracy.

Rather than being driven by data we need to encourage politics to be informed by data, to be open about how it uses data and for political parties to use data and technology to help people engage with politics and make better decisions based on both evidence and their values and principles. It’s up to all of us, particularly those of us with knowledge of technology and data, to help make sure that this happens.

Widening debate on Greater Manchester’s data sharing strategy

Greater Manchester is one of the first UK city-regions to move ahead with a new city devolution deal. Other city-regions may follow their lead. As part of their devolution deal the public sector organisations in Greater Manchester are considering how to use data to improve public services. Part of this thinking has a strong focus on data sharing through a new organisation called GM-Connect. A press release and report has been released about GM-Connect.

This summary is intended to make the report more accessible and allow more people to understand the plans of GM-Connect so that they can engage with this important topic. Summarising like this can help people spot good things, bad things & missing things.

This blog is not my views. It is a summary of the report. None of the meaning has been changed, if meaning has been changed then that is my mistake. Sorry. Do let me know and I’ll correct as appropriate.

Summary of report

Improving how we use data across public services by creating a new public body, the GM Data-Sharing Authority or GM-Connect, will help:

  • support public service reform and the delivery of health and social care
  • increase how much Greater Manchester knows about current and future demand of public services
  • provide a single view of individuals and families to help the public sector make better decisions

In November 2014 £4m was allocated to create an approach to data, information and knowledge sharing across all public sector organisations in Greater Manchester. The report was developed over a 6 month period with help from KPMG and the Centre of Excellence for Information Sharing. The report asks Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) to:

  • create GM-Connect with an initial £500k to be spent in the first year employing four staff members and bringing in more external advice
  • create a new Greater Manchester data sharing governance group, the GM-Connect executive board, led by a Chief Information Officer

This money will allow GM-Connect to employ 4 staff and bring in external help to develop the programme and business case. The rest of the £3.5m is expected to be spent by April 2017 on technology.

The report also provides information about the principles that GM-Connect will use (for example clear accountability to lead data sharing), the things it will do in its first year (for example a business case for an index of all Manchester residents), and why it is needed (for example to improve public services).

Why is GM-Connect needed

Public sector staff frequently say that data sharing is difficult, Greater Manchester wants to make it easier.

Greater Manchester consulted extensively with local stakeholders (the list of organisations is at the end of this document). Everyone consulted agreed with this plan. Both people in Manchester and independent external advisors believe Greater Manchester can be the UK’s leader in data sharing.

The recently published report on taking charge of our health and social care in Greater Manchester says we need to share data and find new ways of working.

We will use technology to understand patient needs, and develop services more efficiently and effectively as a result. We want people to have greater access, ownership and responsibility over their own data, generating multiple ways to interact with the health and social care system and putting people at the heart of how their information is collected, stored and used. More effective use of information across organisations, driven by patient ownership, will reduce duplication and ensure more speedy access to the right services.

We want technology to support self-management, from staying well to living well with long term conditions. We need to share data and information across organisations on a day to day basis to support assessment, triage and integrated multi agency case management.

The health and social care system in GM will work with the wider public sector on the implementation of our information sharing strategy GM-Connect. As part of the wider GM reform activity, GM- Connect will own the data sharing mandate and will deliver GM wide solutions for employees and people to access, update and analyse data.

GM-Connect will not just help public sector workers it will also help residents. Following a hip operation, the family of one man had to repeat his story to ten different agencies when trying to arrange their father’s support and aftercare. The family found a wheelchair and someone to help administer injections themselves. GM-Connect will fix this problem

With GM-Connect public sector staff will be automatically notified of important life events for residents such as young people becoming adults or when an adult becomes homeless.

GM-Connect will start with a small team

GM-Connect will be a small team that will set the strategy for data sharing for Greater Manchester and help people do it by providing guidance and technology. It will have the dual role of promoting better use of data and protecting information that Greater Manchester holds.

GM-Connect’s vision is:

To create value and insight across GM: supporting improved and more efficient services and improved outcomes for GM and residents, by breaking down information silos and barriers to sharing data.

The team will initially consist of 4 people reporting to an executive board. The team will be led by a new Programme Director and include a data guardian, a data analytics specialist and an information governance lead.

GM-Connect will have some key principles

GM-Connect will have the following key principles:

  • Clear accountability to lead data sharing
  • There is a duty to share data that is equal to the duty to protect data
  • Build trust and confidence between residents, communities and local public services
  • Establish a user-centric approach to services
  • Support a place-based approach to service delivery
  • Increase and manage secure use of data
  • Use modern methods and technologies
  • Focus on value and impact
  • Minimise duplication and encourage reuse
  • Create a single view of data and common understanding of data sharing
  • Support Greater Manchester’s IT and Digital strategies
  • Extend data sharing to include open data
  • Data should be shared unless there is a legal or statutory reason not to do so

GM-Connect has a long term plan

The organisation will:

  • develop a business case for an index of all Manchester residents
  • use a federated data sharing model with data held and managed by different organisations but bought together when needed.
  • create a set of guidance for how to share data to solve problems.
  • support public sector organisations to make better use of data.
  • look for external funding.

GM-Connect’s plan for the first year

By April 2016 GM-Connect will create the organisation and establish a governance board, executive board and delivery team.

By June 2016 the programme of work will be defined.

By March 2017 GM-Connect will deliver some initial projects; deliver a strategic technology solution; develop a detailed business case for implementation of whole programme; make sure the data sharing strategies align with other Greater Manchester strategies and secure long-term funding.

This approach has been used elsewhere

Federated approaches to data sharing have been successful elsewhere, for example New York’s Health and Human Services programme, Canada’s Service Alberta programme and Estonia. In Estonia citizens can perform any municipal or state transaction online.

In each of these cases there has been strong political leadership focussed on services not technology but it is equally important to protect data and have democratic oversight.

GM-Connect will have governance

The report proposes a governance and delivery framework.

A GM-Connect executive board co-chaired by the Greater Manchester Combined Authority lead for public service reform and the chair of the Health and Social Care Strategic Partnership board. All members of the executive board will be advocates of data sharing.

The board will have senior cross-representation covering health and social care, the Police and Crime Commissioner and Greater Manchester police force, Greater Manchester fire and rescue service, employment and skills, housing providers, local authorities, growth, Transport for Greater Manchester, New Economy and the National Centre of Excellence for Information Sharing.

The delivery team will report to this executive board.

Annex — the list of organisations consulted when producing this report

The full report lists the names and job titles of the people who were consulted. In this summary I have only recorded the names of organisations.

  • All Greater Manchester Local Authority IT Directors and Information Governance leads
  • Bolton Council
  • Bolton Foundation Trust
  • Centre for Health Informatics and the MRC Health eResearch Centre Greater Manchester Academic Health Science Network
  • Centre of Excellence for Information Sharing
  • Greater Manchester Academic Health Science Network
  • Greater Manchester Health and Social Care IM&T Group
  • Greater Manchester Health and Social Care Reform
  • Greater Manchester Information Governance Network
  • Greater Manchester Police
  • Greater Manchester Public Service Reform team
  • Health & Social Care Information Centre
  • Health Innovation Manchester
  • IM&T (Health and Social Care Devolution)
  • iNetwork
  • Manchester City Council
  • NHS Bury Clinical Commissioning Group
  • NHS Wigan Borough Clinical Commissioning Group
  • Rochdale Borough Council
  • Salford Royal NHS Foundation Trust
  • Stockport Borough Council
  • The Christie Hospital NHS Foundation Trust
  • University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay NHS Foundation Trust
  • University of Manchester
  • Wrightington, Wigan & Leigh NHS Foundation Trust
  • Wrightington, Wigan and Leigh NHS Foundation Trust

Contacting GM-Connect

The report names Andrew Lightfoot, a.lightfoot@manchester.gov.uk, as contact officer for the project.

I summarised this report to widen the debate

To reiterate stuff from the beginning. This summary is intended to make the report more accessible and allow more people to understand the plans of GM-Connect so that they can engage with this important topic. Summarising like this can help people spot good things, bad things & missing things.

This blog is not my views. It is a summary of the report. None of the meaning has been changed, if meaning has been changed then that is my mistake. Sorry. Do let me know and I’ll correct as appropriate.

Panama, open data, personal data, open Panama

We’ve been talking about the Panama Papers at the Open Data Institute. This is the second part of a blog that came from discussions with some of the lovely team there.

The first part looked at the Panama Papers through the lens of data infrastructure. This, the second part, looks at it through the lens of personal data and privacy.

The Panama Papers are not open data. They contain leaked, or hacked, information some of which has been placed in the public domain, but it is clearly an important story and one where data plays a vital role and where openness can help improve trust.

In the UK the release has led to renewed stories about the personal tax affairs of the Prime Minister’s family. The opposition leader has pledged to publish details of how much he pays in tax and called for the Prime Minister to do the same. As well as debating tax and open government the Panama Papers should also make us debate personal data and understand that both privacy and openness create trust.

Personal data, privacy and openness

Whilst open government data often focuses on non-personal data some societies have chosen to openly publish personal data about their politicians. Just as we expect high standards of openness from our governments we also expect it from the politicians who represent us. People believe that open data about politicians will improve trust, reduce corruption and help voters make better decisions about who represents them.

In saying that politicians should openly publish this data we are saying that they should have less privacy than the rest of us, that the benefits to society of openly publishing politician’s personal data is sufficient to override this part of their human right to privacy. Society would not be saying that politicians should publish all of their personal data but that they should publish more personal data than other people.

In the USA presidential candidates are expected to release their medical records and tax returns. In the UK we have become used to seeing details of politician’s expenses whilst in the run up to the 2015 general election a group of activists started collecting and publishing politician’s CVs. You can even find the CVs of the candidates for the next UN secretary general online. Whilst we may not all get a vote for the UN secretary general, having access to information about the candidates helps open up the process and improves the debate about the decisions being made by our representatives.

Perhaps the calls for publication of politician’s tax returns is a logical next step for the UK, and maybe medical records will follow, but these steps should include an informed debate that goes deeper than party political arguments may allow.

We should recognise that data is not always used in the way we expect or want. Publishing data can lead to more informed debate but sometimes it can be a challenge. In the UK the release of MP’s expenses highlighted many issues where politicians fell far below the standards that voters expected or wanted, but there were also cases where behaviour that was perhaps reasonable was highlighted as incorrect. Some politicians claim that this will drive good people out of politics. This is a bad argument. This is not closed or shared data where we can control its use and stop abuse. This is data that society has decided should be open and that anyone can use for any purpose. Politicians should expect their open data to be used in ways they may not want or expect but rebut these cases by honestly and simply explaining what the data contains, or doesn’t. Publishing the data openly allows this debate to happen in the open. An open and honest debate can improve trust in politicians.

Second, whilst we frequently, and mistakenly think, that all personal data is “my” data this debate would need to recognise that personal data frequently concerns more than one person. My tax and medical records refer to my wife, myself and the institutions that we deal with. My tax records refer to joint savings accounts. My medical records would show that my wife and I had a couple of, unsuccessful, rounds of IVF treatments a few years ago (*). If we want people to understand and control how their data is shared then would I need to gain consent from my wife before releasing the records? Would being unable to release tax or medical records prevent people from becoming a, successful, politician (**)?

Third, the debate will need to recognise that data is not always trustworthy. How are we to know if a tax record is accurate and has not been altered? How are we to know if the record is complete or that a politician is not due to receive funds in the future or has not benefited from illegal practices in the past?

Systems will only ever be as trustworthy as the data that is put into them but, perhaps, new technology, like blockchains, could assist? If we are to explore distributed ledger technology for tracking personal financial transactions across the globe then we will need to be wary of the challenges of putting personal data in blockchains and that the design patterns for privacy on a blockchain are complex and subtle. It would be interesting to end up in a transparent society because of a design flaw, rather than by choice.

If technology does become part of the solution to tax avoidance then we also will need to consider whether we are designing something for the whole world, or something that accepts that different people, societies and cultures make their own choices and that those choices change over time. The need to tackle tax avoidance is worldwide. Only a few societies hold the same standards of openness for citizens as they do for politicians, yet any citizen can choose to try and become a politician at a point during their lives. Whilst different cultures still make different moral choices any move for greater transparency for politicians is likely to need to allow for different people, societies and cultures to choose their own mix of privacy and openness for personal data.

Whilst the party political arguments will continue we still have an opportunity for a debate that covers these points and the many others that the Panama Papers raise. Privacy is a human right. Like any human right it needs a vigorous and informed debate if we are to sacrifice some of it. We should be having a more informed debate about data.

The Panama Papers can lead to better data infrastructure for anti-corruption and a more informed debate about data

The Panama Papers highlight the urgent need to make progress on getting people and organisations to pay a fair amount of tax.

In the first part of this blog I looked at the papers through the lens of data infrastructure and said that the next steps in building a more reliable and open data infrastructure for anti-corruption should include a global register of beneficial ownership. The register will improve our efforts to combat tax avoidance and other forms of corruption.

It should also include an environment where politicians are more open with the people they represent and where we have a wider and more informed debate about the role of data in our society.

The debate about how much personal data should be open to stop corruption could be complex and nuanced, but it will be useful. The choices we make about data are vital to our future. We need better, more informed and wider debate about data and how we bring together privacy and openness.

(*) Yes, of course my wife gave consent to me to publish that line in this blog but I didn’t ask my doctor or hospital. Should I have?

(**) To be very clear, there are many, many other things that would stop me being a politician. My own complete and utter lack of desire or capability to be a politician being the most significant ones 🙂

Bitcoin, money laundering, and the challenge that law faces in keeping up with technology

I’m interested in the new organisational structures that blockchains, or other forms of distributed ledger, might enable, the problems they might solve and whether solving those problems can help make the world better. Bitcoin is enabled by one type of blockchain. As Jeni Tennison of the Open Data Institute explained:

Blockchains provide a way to store information so that many people can see it, keep a copy of it, and add to it. Once added, it is very difficult to remove information, which can reinforce trust in a blockchain’s content.

Bitcoins are a form of digital currency and blockchains were originally designed as a system to manage them. Within the Bitcoin system anyone can access and add information (such as what Bitcoins are used for, where they were spent and when) to the blockchain.

Someone (*) told me a theory about bitcoin the other week. I don’t know if the theory is right, or even close to right, but it reminded me of something I’ve come across before. A familiar, although slightly different, pattern. This kind of pattern matching is common in humans. It can help us grasp new concepts quickly. Sometimes it can also lead us astray. Given the pace of legal frameworks that can be a bad thing.

Money laundering

Money laundering is how a criminal makes it hard to discover that their money was gained illegally. There are many ways to do it. After money is laundered it appears to come from a legal source. It is ‘clean’. The criminal can enjoy the profits produced by their illegal activity with a reduced risk of punishment. Money laundering techniques evolve over time.

Let’s take an example:

Alice sells illegal drugs for cash. Alice has no other reason to have large amounts of cash hanging around. If the police find Alice with her cash then she will be in trouble.

Alice walks into a betting shop and puts the cash into a slot machine. Put a pound in. Press the button. Put a pound in. Press the button. It gets repetitive. But every so often there’s a big win. Alice ends up with £300 in cash in her pocket along with a receipt saying that she won it by putting in a single pound.

Slot machines have a built-in advantage for whoever runs them so Alice ends up with less money than she started with but it was worth it. If anyone asks then Alice now has a good reason to have the £300. She’s got clean money and is less likely to go to jail. Lucky Alice.

I know Alice’s story is true. It has become easier in the UK since the liberalisation of slot machines in 2001.

Here’s a more complex money laundering example. One made possible by newer technology and business models:

Roberto has a regular income in his country. He makes his money illegally: perhaps from drugs, perhaps from robbing people, who knows. Every week he gets some money coming in.

Roberto heard of M2M (machine-to-machine) and IoT (internet of things). M2M is when machines communicate with each other. IoT is when that happens across the internet. Communications cost money. At a basic level it is the machines and the cost of the network that connects the machines together but money might also be paid to intermediary organisations that pass on a message or that translate between the languages spoken by different machines.

Roberto spots an opportunity. He sets up some machines in both his home country and another country. He uses his illegal money to pay for the energy consumed by the machines and of wages of people to look after them. Roberto also sets up an intermediary organisation. His machines talk through the intermediary and pay a fee. The intermediary organisation helps turn the dirty money into clean money.

If Roberto sets up the intermediary in a third country he could produce the clean money in a different currency and legal jurisdiction. He could even pass the transactions through multiple intermediaries making it very hard for anyone to trace it back to him. Lucky Roberto.

I think Roberto’s story is true. Once upon a time I thought I saw some of the breadcrumbs left behind by his machines as they went from one intermediary to another.

A theory about bitcoin

And now for the bitcoin theory. It is not the usual story about money laundering by exchanging cash for bitcoins. It is a little more complex.

The blocks in the bitcoin blockchain store information. The information might say things like “Jerry transferred money to Jane”, “Brenda paid Mary” or any other message you like. Anyone can pass information to the bitcoin network for storage. Machines called ‘miners’ compete to create the next block by doing work to solve a complex computer problem. The miners are rewarded a number of newly created bitcoins for doing this work. This is called a proof of work system. It reduces the chance of two miners storing the same or conflicting information at the same time and helps the whole system to function.

Let’s imagine the tale of Francesca:

Francesca has money that she has received illegally and wants to launder. She has spoken to Roberto about his machines. Francesca has also heard about bitcoin but doesn’t trust anyone to change her money into bitcoins. She decides to combine the ideas.

Francesca builds a bitcoin mining farm. She hires people to run it. She buys specialised hardware to maximise her return. She pays the electricity bill. She stores information for people. (Even people like me who store silly messages about their football club on the bitcoin blockchain.) She receives bitcoins in return.

The bitcoins are controlled by whoever holds the key. Francesca can buy things with the bitcoins or other people that she trusts with the key can. Lucky Francesca.

Now I don’t know if the theory is true. I suspect it will not be a great money laundering scheme. After all bitcoin is more transparent than it is private. Perhaps Francesca’s aim is a more focussed one of transferring money from one country to another. To transfer it away from the control of a particular government to somewhere safer.

New technologies create new patterns of behaviour that are hard to predict

These patterns and the changes from Alice to Roberto to Francesca — one money laundering to avoid the local police, the next to avoid all authorities, the final one to, perhaps, avoid a single government — shows how hard it can be to predict how new technologies will be used.

Our governments want to stop money laundering whether it takes place through bitcoin, other cryptocurrencies or new technologies that follow. To do this governments will have to understand how both the bitcoin blockchain, and the many other types of distributed ledger, might be used for money laundering. They may think that we need to follow a pattern from old technologies and demand that we know people’s identity. If they do this then, as Joichi Icho points out, we risk more bad laws that could create adverse effects elsewhere. New technologies, and hence our societies, operate on a global scale with open standards that can be used and influenced by anyone. One country’s defence against money laundering or international terrorists might help another country’s moves to stop internal political opponents.

If we are to make the world a better place using new technologies then perhaps one of the biggest challenges we need to think about is the legal and political one. Our technologies and societies are becoming more global open, agile and dynamic. How do we create legal and political frameworks that aren’t rigid and take years to come into force but are instead adaptive and iterative enough to keep up with the changes in technology and society?

(*) I’m happy to add their name if they wish.

Improving UK voter registration

Voter registration is a problem in the UK.

If we opened up aggregated data and registration APIs then we could build a network of services to help get people registered. As a result we would get more people registered and, hopefully, more people voting in our elections.

Millions of people are not registered to vote

In January 2016 there were reports that 800,000 people dropped off the electoral register last year. That 800,000 is on top of the Electoral Commission report in July 2014 which found that around 7.5 million of people who are eligible to vote weren’t on the register.

That’s a lot of people. If we can get them registered (and engaged enough to turnout and vote) then it could help increase the turnout in UK elections.

Wouldn’t that be nice.

Voter registration data is available but only shared with some people

Voter registration data is managed and held locally by electoral registration officers (EROs). They share it with some people.

There are 2 versions of the electoral register — the ‘open register’ and the full version. You choose whether to go on the open one when you apply to register. The ‘open register’ is available for inspection at council offices or to purchase. People build websites with it and use it for marketing.

Many people do not want their name and address available for lots of people to see so they keep their details off the ‘open register’. The full version of the electoral register can be accessed by fewer people. Some of the people who are allowed to use it include the election staff who post out our voting details and political parties who get occasional releases and use it to knock on our doors and ask us to vote for them.

When election results are announced we get all to see an aggregated summary of the voter registration data. The Electoral Commission uses the total number in election results and to calculate the turnout in the election.

Other than that we rarely get to see the data. The Office of National Statistics publish a yearly update and the Electoral Commission publish historic data but nowhere shows a total count of the current number of people registered to vote (*).

Many organisations are improving voter registration

Government launched a new easy to use website in 2014 and runs voter registration campaigns whilst political parties also use the occasional release of voter registration data that they are given to target unregistered voters. Meanwhile lots of other good organisations (such as Bite The Ballot, Operation Black Vote and Hope Note Hate) are also working to get more people registered.

Releasing regular aggregated data (“X people are registered to vote in area Y”) to these organisations will help them target their time and money. These groups do not need access to the full register and they should not get it. I doubt these groups even need the ‘open register’. I suspect simple regular releases of aggregated data for particular areas will make a big difference to their efforts.

If the government can release national totals for voter registration every day then aggregated voter registration data for local areas can also be released every day. It would create more informed debate about the challenges of voter registration and help target efforts to increase registration.

Better voter registration services

We will continue to need paper forms for people to register (never forget that 12 million people, 20% of UK adults, are not on the internet) but we can also build better online services. As well as using aggregated registration data to campaign we could also use APIs.

Rather than relying on one website we could use APIs to build a network:

  1. A citizen could inform their local authority that they have moved address and allow them to update the electoral register at the same time.
  2. A voter registration organisation could translate the current website into one of the many other languages spoken by UK citizens.
  3. A political party could register its members.
  4. A student could allow their university to update the electoral register.
  5. A tenant could allow a housing association to update the electoral register.

Many better ideas will exist. Open APIs allow innovation to flourish.

A voter registration API could follow exactly the same rules and regulations as the current website. Ideally the API would also allow individuals to check if they are registered. This would reduce the inevitable duplicated requests that must cost councils time and money. The Government Digital Service could monitor use of the API and get action taken against people who misuse it.

To be clear this is not about opening up the code for the API. It is about allowing people to use a voter registration API in the same way that HMRC plans to allow people to use its APIs. Once the voter registration API is open then any local council, university, civic technology organisation, housing association or voter registration campaign can pick it up and build it into their services.

Opening up voter registration will make things better

Voter registration is clearly a problem in the UK. The simple new website helps but voter registration is not a problem that a single website will solve.

Government could choose to go further than I’ve outlined in this blog and redesign voter registration. Such a redesign would hopefully consider better open data and open APIs but also consider bigger questions such as whether people could be automatically registered under some circumstances or whether the data could be managed within a central platform rather than the distributed network of systems managed by Electoral Registration Officers. It is not clear if government has the appetite for such a redesign or how long it would take so I’ve focussed my thoughts on pragmatic things that could help tackle the known problem of under-registration (**).

It is every government’s responsibility to ensure voter registration works. By opening up aggregated data and building open APIs, government can improve how it works with the existing network of voter registration campaigns, civic technology organisations and local authorities and make things better.

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

(*) Sentence updated after publication to be more precise.

(**) Paragraph added after publication to be clear on pragmatism v redesign.

The Blackpool Fans’ Progress Group are undemocratic and unrepresentative

Thousands of supporters are choosing to boycott Blackpool football club because of the appalling actions of its current owners, the Oyston family.

Over the last three years nearly 2000 fans have chosen to join the Blackpool Supporters Trust (BST). Anyone can join. The trust is democratically run by its members. The trust’s committee is elected by its members. The club has refused to speak to the trust, and the fans that it represents, despite three years of attempts.

The club decided to set up its own group. The Blackpool Fans’ Progress Group (FPG). This group has 6 members. They were selected by the club’s staff. They do not represent the fans.

Some people seem to think the FPG is a legitimate way for the club to engage the fans, a bit of basic research shows this isn’t the case. Here are some links and some of the FPG’s own words. Any Blackpool fan can point at this post to help explain to any politician or journalist that the FPG is undemocratic and unrepresentative.

Meanwhile if the 6 members of the Fans Progress Group read this post I hope they think about the message of hope at the end.

The Fans’ Progress Group were selected by the club

At the start of 2015 the club’s previous official fan group, cut its ties with the club saying:

“The chairman’s recent words and actions have alienated supporters and brought our club into disrepute. We once again want a club where all supporters feel they are valued.”

In the summer of 2015 the Oyston family decided that it would set up a new official group for Blackpool fans. Initially called the “Fans’ Parliament” This group is now called the “Blackpool Fans’ Progress Group”, or “FPG”.

Three of the four people that the club announced as being on a selection panel for the FPG withdrew from the selection process. The MP for Blackpool South, Gordon Marsden had been announced by the club as a panel member. He publicly said:

“At no point did I give any commitment to taking part in the selection process”

Eventually the club’s staff personally selected the twelve people who joined the group.

Four of those initial twelve members quit after a single meeting with the chairman, Karl Oyston saying:

“after the first meeting it quickly became clear he wasn’t really willing to act on our main concerns”

The Fans’ Progress Group in their own words

When the FPG was first launched, and on a few occasions since, I have exchanged polite emails with them. In these exchanges the FPG has said things such as:

One of our objectives is to get Karl to re-open dialogue with the main supporter groups like the BST and BSA etc., we absolutely do not consider ourselves to be a replacement for these groups

and

We have never professed to represent other fans

Last week I had another email exchange with the FPG. The FPG gave its permission for me to publish the full exchange. The exchange showed that there are now only six members of the group. Let’s be clear: as they do not “profess to represent other fans” the FPG represents six people.

I asked whether the FPG would ever hold an open meeting with fans. The FPG said:

Yet to be decided, although we receive many views and opinions from supporters like yourself via Email or our website contact form, and those supporters we talk to both at matches and elsewhere and those we known personally. The FPG isn’t a fee paying members group, but more of an independent supporters liaison group. Remember we are barely 6 months old and are still in the early stages of evolving.

Now, I’m no expert in football liaison but you would have thought that rather than deciding between the six of them whether or not to hold an open meeting they might want to ask Blackpool’s fans what they wanted. They might want to go to where the fans are. It would not take me 6 months to work that out.

There is more in that response from the FPG but I will leave it for others to pick apart. The point is made.

The FPG are 6 people. They are not democratic. They were selected by the club. They know that they are unrepresentative. They do not know or understand what many Blackpool fans want. They have no legitimacy other than that granted to them by the club and the Oystons.

The club and the Oystons are giving the FPG’s opinions a value that they simply do not deserve.

The Blackpool Supporters Trust are democratic and representative

By contrast the Blackpool Supporters Trust (BST) represents nearly 2000 fans. Anyone can join. Whether they are a lifelong season ticket holder, someone who refuses to buy a ticket because of the boycott or someone who chooses not to buy because they live thousands of miles away. All fans can have a voice.

BST holds regular meetings that are open to anybody to attend whether or not they are a member. Minutes are published after every meeting. The BST committee was selected through a vote in which nearly 1000 members participated. Any member could have stood for election. The committe are democratically elected representatives for the members.

There are over 140 democratically run supporters trusts across the UK. BST are an affiliate of the Football Supporters Federation (FSF). Any fan group can join the FSF, only democratically run ones become affiliates with the legitimacy that democracy provides.

If the club and its owners genuinely want to speak with the fans then rather than insulting them, taking legal action against them or hand-picking the fans it chooses to talk to the club needs to start by simply recognising and talking with the Blackpool Supporters Trust.

A final note of sorrow and hope

Despite the damage they are causing to the fans and the wider Blackpool community I do feel sorry for the 6 people who are left in the Fans Progress Group. They have made a huge mistake and I think some of them know it.

Their mistake was to allow themselves to be used by the Oyston family. The Oystons created the FPG because they were unwilling to talk with a democratically run fan’s group and the fans it represents.

As we saw in this post the Oyston family are happy to use people. They claimed that one of Blackpool’s MPs had agreed to help them select the FPG when he hadn’t.

There is a way forward. A way for those 6 fans to show some real progress. The remaining members of the FPG can stop causing damage and go to where the fans are.

They can help make Blackpool FC a more democratic club, one that listens to all its fans, by leaving the FPG and joining their fellow Blackpool fans in choosing to be represented by the democratic Blackpool Supporters Trust.

I hope they do.

Politicians should open up casework data

Would it be useful to know whether complaints about welfare payments are rising or falling? Or to understand more about the jobs that our politicians do?

There is data that can help answer both of these questions and many others. Unfortunately it’s not open.

If this data was open we could make more informed decisions about where to target housing support, how to improve our welfare system or who to vote for.

The chamber of the House of Commons. There are no MPs in sight. That might be because their work in the chamber of the House of Commons is only part of the job. Image (c) Parliament. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Politicians do casework for the constitutents they represent. They help people by solving problems: an issue with welfare benefits, a difficult immigration claim, a housing problem. Someone might ask a politician for help by writing to them, phoning their office or by going to meet them.

Casework is vital. It is one of the ways that politicians understand the challenges faced by their constituents.

As an ex-assistant to a UK politician put it:

What many people don’t realise is that in many cases an MP’s office is a last port of call for those who have fallen through the cracks of civil society.

We can open up data on casework whilst protecting privacy. Some MPs already do this.

Making the data open will make politicians better

There is a lot of data that politicians could choose to publish but casework data seems a very useful dataset. It might even be an easy one if they use a digital service to manage casework and that service published the open data.

Whilst politicians may have no legal obligation to do casework I suspect that most choose to. It is a little understood but vital part of a politician’s job. Publishing data about this work can help voters understand more about the job that politicians actually do. It will help politicians explain their job, and its challenges, to voters and should help voters make more informed decisions when they choose who they want to represent them.

Harriet Harman’s casework statistics, reportedly the largest volume in the UK. (source)

It is suprising how few politicians publish data about their work. Here in the UK Chi Onwurah publishes data and some others, like my own MP, Harriet Harman, publish it but in a form that is not easy to use. Many others, even those who either now or previously have had responsibility for open data, publish nothing. Politicians will benefit from going open and learning from the technology, the data protection challenges and the cultural benefits that openness brings. They will benefit from showing voters that their job is different from many people’s expectations.

There are more politicians than those in the House of Commons. Our representatives also work in Edinburgh, Belfast, Cardiff and the hundreds of council chambers and parish councils up and down the country and they also do casework to help their constituents. All of these politicians could publish their casework data, gain the same benefits and help fix the cracks in society. This is a non-partisan issue. If politicians from all parties and all layers of government open up their data in a standard open format then it can be combined to create a more accurate picture.

Making the data open will help fix the cracks

People contact their MP for help when the system has failed. We will all benefit from the root cause of the problem being solved and the system being improved. Publishing this data should lead to targetted action and better services.

One month of Chi Onwurah’s casework statistics. Are the volumes comparable to other cities? Are the trends up or down? (source)

The data could be combined with other information about an area to help all of us understand the challenges it faces. It could be combined with other data, such as that published by the Citizen’s Advice Bureau and local authorities, to inform national debate.

The data might show general trends or it might point to specific issues that can be resolved. A fall in benefits casework might show that the system is improving whilst a rise in casework on housing in a given location might show that services are being increasingly stretched and that action is required to investigate it and build a solution.

By making data about politicians’ casework open we will make politicians better and help fix some of those cracks in our society.

If you know of other politicians publishing casework data then I’d love to see it. If you think this is a good idea then why don’t you write to the politicians that represent you and ask them to publish some data? If you don’t think it’s a good idea then do tell me why. I’m @peterkwells on twitter 🙂

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