countculture

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Introducing the Open Election Project: tiny steps towards opening local elections

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Update: The Open Election Data project is now live at http://openelectiondata.org.

Here’s a fact that will surprise many: There’s no central or open record of the results of local elections in the UK.

Want to look back at how people voted in your local council elections over the past 10 years? Tough. Want to compare turnout between different areas, and different periods? Sorry, no can do. Want an easy way to see how close the election was last time, and how much your vote might make a difference? Forget it.

It surprised and faintly horrified me (perhaps I’m easily shocked). Go to the Electoral Commission’s website and you’ll see they quickly pass the buck… to the BBC, who just show records of seat numbers, not voting records.


In fact, there is an unofficial database of the election results — held by Plymouth University, and this is what they do (remember we’re in the year 2010 now):

We collect them and then enter them manually into our database. This process is begun in February where we assess which local authority wards are due up for election, continues during March and April when we collect electorates and candidate names and then following the elections in May (or June in some years) we contact the local authorities for their official results”

Not surprisingly, the database is commercial (I guess they have to pay for all that manual work somehow), though they do receive some support from the Electoral Commission, which means as far as democracy, open analysis, and public record goes, it might as well not exist.

There are, of course, records of local election results on local authority websites, but accessible/comparable/reusable they ain’t, nor are they easy to find, and they are in so many different formats that it makes getting the information out of them near impossible, except manually.

So in the spirit of scratching your own itch (I’d like to put the information on OpenlyLocal.com, and I’m sure lots of other bodies would too, from the BBC to national press), I came up with a grandiose title and a simple plan: The Open Election Data project, an umbrella project to help local authorities to publish their election results in an open, reusable common format.

I had the idea at the end of the first meeting of the Local Public Data Panel, of which I’m a member and which is tasked with finding ways of opening up local public data. I then did an impromptu session at the UK Gov Barcamp on January 23, and got a great response. Finally I had meetings and discussions with all sorts of people, from local govt types, local authority CMS suppliers, council webmasters, returning officers and standards organisations. Finally, it was discussed at the 2nd Local Public Data Panel meeting this week, and endorsed there.

So how does it work? Well, the basic idea is that instead of councils writing their election results web pages using some arbitrary HTML (or worse, using PDFs), they use HTML with machine-readable information added into it using something called RDFa, which is already used by many organisations for the this purpose (e.g. for government’s consultations).

This means that pretty much any competent Content Management System should be able to use the technique to expose the data, while still allowing them to style it as they wish. Here, for example, is what one of Lichfield District Council’s election results pages currently looks like:

And this is what it looks like after it’s had RDFa added (and a few more bits of information):

As you can see (apart from the extra info), there appears to be no change to the user. The difference is however, that if you point a machine capable of understanding RDFa at it, you can slurp up the results, and bingo, suddenly you’ve got an election results database for free, putting local elections on a par with national ones for the first time.

So where do things go from here?

I’m also presenting this at the localgovcamp tomorrow(March 4), and we hope to have some draft local authority election results pages in the weeks shortly afterwards (although the focus is on getting as many councils to implement this by the local elections on May 6, there’s nothing to stop them using it on existing pages, and indeed we’d encourage them to, so they can get a feel for and indeed expose those earlier results). I’m also discussing setting up a Community of Practice to help enable council webmasters discuss implementation.

Finally, many thanks to those who have helped me draw up the various RDFa stuff and/or helped with the underlying idea: especially Jeni Tennison, Paul Davidson from LeGSB, Stuart Harrison of Lichfield District Council, Tim Allen of the LGA, and many more.

Written by countculture

March 3, 2010 at 11:24 pm

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