Room 123, Wandsworth Town Hall
One of the centres of Wandsworth democracy, room 123.

Is this an annual report? I don’t think so really, not by any stretch of the imagination but last year I posted on my attendance rate at Wandsworth Council meetings. I’m not sure how useful it was, personally, I think rating councillors according to town hall meetings is a poor indication of their effectiveness: would I be better going to 100% and achieving nothing, or just 25% of meetings and getting something out of them?

However, I record the data and I rather like playing with numbers. So, a breakdown of my 2011–2012 council year.

I’m including only some of the meetings I attend, basically the ‘public’ meetings. These represent only a fraction of the meetings I attend, but they form those which are part of the formal decision-making process or those I am appointed as a council representajtive.


Overall I managed to attend 81% of meetings, missing nine out of 48. This is remarkably similar to last year, when I also managed an 81% attendance rate (missing eleven out of 58). The numerical decrease represents a change to a much less diverse portfolio, indeed, a number of the meetings at the beginning of the municipal year were ‘hang-overs’ from my old job. (One, the hate crime forum, still lingers, but more on that later.)

Council meetings

2011–2012: 89% attendance (eight out of nine meetings).
2010–2011: 90% attendance (nine out of ten meetings).

While these are at the top of the tree in the democratic process they are often rather stale affairs: at the end of the democratic process when most of the arguments have been had. Often I will not play any role in the meeting at all.


2011–2012: 75% attendance (six out of eight meetings).
2010–2011: 71% attendance (ten out of fourteen meetings).

I’m actually surprised this is that high. Executive meetings tend to be short, rubber-stamp meetings that are often timed in seconds; they are easy to miss.

Adult Care and Health OSC

2011–2012: 100% attendance (one meeting).
2010–2011: 100% attendance (six meetings).

Nothing like a 100% record. But very easy when there’s only one meeting. This is one of those hangover meetings that I attended while my old role was dismantled.

Environment, Culture and Community Safety OSC

2011–2012: 100% attendance (three meetings).
2010–2011: 100% attendance (seven meetings).

This is an odd meeting since only a tiny part of my current role sits within the OSC’s remit (and arguably also sits within another committee’s remit too). I only attend when relevant items are on the agenda which doesn’t happen that often.

Hate Crime Forum

2011–2012: 50% attendance (two out of four meetings).
2010–2011: 100% attendance (three meetings).

This is a lingering meeting from my old council role. I’ve retained the chairmanship of this while it – hopefully – moves to a self-sustaining community-led format. My poor attendance was down to bad luck, with a nasty chest infection and a bout of bad ’flu coinciding with the meetings.

Health and Wellbeing Board

2011–2012: 100% attendance (four meetings).
2010–2011: 100% attendance (two meetings).

Again, a hangover meeting which I attended while my role was dismantled and a suitable replacement council representative found and formally nominated to the membership.

Nine Elms Strategy Board

2011–2012: 80% attendance (four out of five meetings).
2010–2011: not a member.

A new meeting for this year. I missed one because it clashed with my holiday, which had already been booked before my appointment.

Shaftesbury Park Governors

2011–2012: 67% attendance (two out of three meetings).
2010–2011: 0% attendance (none out of three meetings)

I had a shocker with this last year, every meeting clashing with something else. My diary was a lot better this year, I missed one meeting because of a clash, but was able to attend the other two.

South West London NHS Joint Boards

2011–2012: 50% attendance (one out of two meetings).
2010–2011: 100% attendance (two meetings).

Another one of those hangovers. I gave apologies to a formal meeting that was merely convened to ratify the accounts.

Strategic Planning and Transportation OSC

2011–2012: 100% attendance (five meetings).
2010–2011: did not have a relevant portfolio.

This committee’s remit covers the lion’s share of my current role.

Wandsworth Employment and Skills Partnership

2011–2012: 100% attendance (four meetings).
2010–2011: not a member.

Another new meeting.

Wandsworth Local Strategic Partnership

2011–2012: 100% attendance (one meeting).
2010–2011: 75% attendance (three out of four meetings).

An easy 100%, only one meeting to attend! I am still formally a member of this (I think) although it has not met for some time and I suspect will either be wound up or have a much different role in the future.

Wandsworth Police Consultative Committee

2011–2012: 0% attendance (missed one meeting).
2010–2011: 60% attendance (three out of five meetings).

Given that I got a few 100%s from single meetings, it’s only fair I should get a zero somewhere. Another hangover meeting, related to my old portfolio. It clashed with another meeting.

And in conclusion…
Do you have any better idea of what I do as a councillor? Or whether I’m any good at it?I’m guessing no. But what would help you answer those questions?

The Shaftesbury Ward Safer Neighbourhood Team meeting takes place tonight at 7pm in the Shaftesbury Club, 128, Lavender Hill.

I’m a fan of neighbourhood policing, but one of its weaknesses, I think, is that the public are not particularly empowered to hold the police to account. Part of this is in the weakness of the data provided.

To a degree this is not the fault of police (at least locally) since they are police or community support officers, not statisticians. They can hardly be expected to also give a robust analysis of crime data. The result is that members of the public tend to get a list of numbers at the meeting that are hard to make sense of and offer no real context.

I suspect the police may argue that mapping provides that accountability, but I’m not sure that in ordinary circumstances mapping enables people to get a feel for what is happening and the overall trends: in other words, are the police winning or losing?

Which prompted me to quickly play with the figures from the Met’s mapping website.

I’m not sure I established the answer.

My first attempt was to compare the figures for total offences in the ward over the past two years.

Crimes by month

This compares the only monthly ward data available, from February 2010 until January 2012. My thinking was that comparing year for year would reveal any seasonal trends and allow an easy comparison, the 2011/12 year should be lower if the police are succeeding in reducing crime.

However, the figures are relatively low (between 58 and 133 crimes per month) and there are all sorts of factors that can create peaks and troughs that skew the comparison.

My next try was a cumulative figure for the two years in question, in other words, the total crime since the start point (in this case February 2010 and February 2011).

Total notifiable offences in Shaftesbury ward cumulative figures by month, February 2010 - January 2012.

My thinking is that this helps make the graphs easier to read, because they don’t have the jumps, and makes it clearer that year on year performance is better or worse. However, I think it does make it a bit harder to see the comparative trend.

My final attempt at graphing performance was a running cumulative total, so the data point for each month contains the total crime for the preceding 12 months.

This has the major disadvantage that the Met only provide 24 months of data, so there is no ward data available before February 2010. The only older data is at borough level and the most recent provided is for the 2008/09 financial year. To see if it made sense I bodged something together from the London Datastore, which has crime rates by ward up to the 2009/2010 financial year. Far from perfect, but it means I can create data for February 2009 to January 2010 that isn’t too far wide of the mark.

Total notifiable offences in Shaftesbury ward rolling 12 month total by month, February 2010 - January 2012.

[NB My assumption here is that crime divides equally by month. The rate for 2009/10 was 90.4 crimes per 1,000 people, and the population estimate was 13,545. Meaning a total of 1,224 crimes or 102 a month. The rate for 2008/2009 was 93.6 crimes per 1,000, and the population estimate was 13,510. Meaning a total of 1,265 crimes or 105 a month.]

Imperfect data aside, I think I prefer this one. It does make crime look high, since a twelve month figure is plotted to a single month, however, it removes the sudden changes of monthly data, makes it clear that, overall crime is lower, but also retains a sense of trend, since the line moves up when crime increases compared to the same month from the previous year.

Would publishing these regularly help the ward panels hold their SNTs to account? I don’t know. Indeed, not being a statistician myself I don’t know how valid they are. However, as a resident, I feel I have a better idea of the general crime picture and trends in the ward because of them. What do you think?

I love freedom of information. Not so much the right for individuals to demand information from public authorities, important though that is (even though, in the council’s case, seems to be mainly used by people trying to get out of parking tickets and recruitment consultants building their contacts list). Instead I love seeing what happens when information is published, in an open format, so people can – well – do things with it. And, perhaps surprisingly, people are doing things with it.

What they do with it is up to them, but as a public body it is – really – their information to do with what they want. What is interesting is how the information is used creatively and to provide public services.

The example that I currently like is OpenlyLocal – which is compiling useful information about boroughs by taking data from various websites and publishing them in a single place. While may this is useful in and of itself, it is doing so in a way that can easily be used by other websites. So if you are running a locally based website, you can easily grab data from there about forthcoming meetings and add it in. (Shamefully, I’ve not done anything with it here, something I should rectify.)

You can even see what meetings I should be at in coming weeks. Does this benefit anyone? Possibly not on its own, but it does have the potential of increasing accountability.

The odd thing is how closed off data is in this country. It is a little hobby-horse of mine and something I gently push in the areas in which I have some say, but there are two problems.

The first is operational. As a council we are here to deliver services, not data, so often the data we are collecting is not in a format that is easily published.

The second is much more pernicious. There is an overwhelming presumption that data is private or copyright. To give an example, few are worse than the postcode, possibly the most important bit of data when it comes to anything geographical. Yet locked down to the extent it is useless.

So when I was keen to publish coverage of the borough by Neighbourhood Watch using postcodes it didn’t happen. We could only, for example, say SW11 5, which cover around one-sixth of the SW11 postcode area, has some Neighbourhood Watches, a piece of information so vague as to be useless.

However, to say that the 30 or so houses in SW11 5LG – the stretch of road I live – would breach privacy; even though we have street signs up and window stickers announcing to anyone who cares to look that it’s a watch area. In fact, one of the strengths of Neighbourhood Watch comes from publicising that it is a watch area.

Perhaps we are being over cautious in our interpretation of various privacy legislation, but it speaks volumes that the national culture around data protection means that we don’t publish what is fundamentally useful information. I’m going to take a wild guess that none of my neighbours will be complaining about this particular breach of privacy.

Data publication features quite a lot in the coalition agreement, so hopefully this will change. And I will continue to plug away where I see opportunities, but in the meantime we’re only scratching the surface of what sites like Openly Local, or even Streetbook can do.