Room 123, Wandsworth Town Hall
Room 123, Wandsworth Town Hall
Days of my life have been wasted spent productively in Room 123

I was thinking about the Shaftesbury Ward report back next week, and specifically the leaflet containing facts and figures about the ward and the area. One thing it doesn’t contain is any real information about the councillors. However, I do publish some information already on my open data page so I spent an idle few minutes assessing my meeting attendance.

I will caveat this post: I don’t think meeting attendance is a very good measure of the quality or otherwise of a councillor. Frankly, what they do outside the formal meetings can be a lot more meaningful to the day-to-day lives of residents. And while it’s easily measurable, it’s binary; you were either at a meeting or you weren’t, it says nothing of the contribution you made.

The following relate to the 2010-2011 municipal year, and basically include all the meetings that run from the 2010 annual council meeting up to the 2011 annual council meeting. It details ‘public’ meetings, those that are formally minuted and feature on the council website, and those I attend as a council nominee.

Overall performance
Of the 60 meetings I listed I managed to attend 49, an overall rate of 82%. I could argue that was pretty good, but then I’d be a little hypocritical given what I’ve said about meetings not being a good measure of a councillor!

What might be a little more revealing is why I missed 18% of meetings.
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Wandsworth has finally launched its open data page (although the content management system lists the data itself on a different page and it’s then a further two clicks to get the actual data!). While bits and pieces of data have been published for a while and have existed throughout the council’s website for a long time, this finally gets it all in one place, under the open data licence (and hopefully, therefore, enough to get us onto OpenlyLocal’s list of fully open councils).

I’m an unashamed fan of open data, and it will be interesting to see how it is all used. I’m rather pleased that my attempt at re-mapping the grit bins is approaching 3,000 views – which I’d bet compares favourably to the number of views the page containing the data has had.

The sad thing is that we will never really know the extent to which its used, because it’s there for others to take, without having to ask for it or tell us what they are doing with it – but if public data is getting out there then it can’t be a bad thing. Indeed, I’d bet that, in a year or two, we’ll have applications on our phones and the web using data from councils across the country and wonder why on earth it took us so long.

View Grit bin locations in a larger map

The response to my mapping of grit bins last week has fascinated me. Of course, the overwhelming majority of people totally ignored it, but some appreciated it and it was rather flattering to be picked up by the LGIU, and even more so to have been highlighted by the webmaster of Lichfield (who is a real pioneer of open data).

But more interesting was the negative response. I cannot deny the bins are located in the north of the borough. And a few people immediately realised why: it’s because a few weeks ago, when the locations were chosen we all got together in a smoky room (we used artificial smoke, so as not to break the smoking ban) and decided that we’d totally ignore poor old Tooting. Then we guffawed, well, most of us did, some went for the muah-ha-ha-ha evil laugh.

Actually, it wasn’t like that at all (although thank-you to Paul Clarke for the inspiration in his insightful post on the snow and ice in Croydon). Instead it was an operational decision. If you know the area you’ll also realise that there is a strong correlation between the how steep the roads are and how many bins there are.

What particularly interested me is that, as far as I can tell, no-one made the accusation that there was some anti-Tooting (or anti-Labour) bias until I’d made the map. Several even used my map to prove their point, because if we were allowing politics to decide the location the first thing a Conservative council executive member would do is create and publicise a map to highlight the point!

There is inequality in the location of bins because there is inequality of terrain. Only if the borough were perfectly flat would perfectly even distribution make sense. That’s not to say the current distribution is perfect because nothing is, and the lessons from this winter’s placement will be learned and used when choosing placement for next winter. But even with that inequality, even with the imperfection that comes from constantly learning, I’d argue what we’ve got is massively better from the only way to get equality: having no bins so everyone got precisely nothing.

What conclusions can we draw? A very clear one is that people respond to data depending on how it’s presented. The grit bin locations had been well publicised, but drew little attention until put into a map on my website. I know for a fact that my website gets far far less traffic than the council website, but for some reason the map had greater traction than the list.

A second conclusion is that when presented with data, people will draw their own conclusions. To me it was quite clear that the major factor in location choice were steep roads, to others there was a socio-economic or political motivation (there are so many bins in my ward that if it were an indicator of power I’d be something like a local government demi-God rather than mundanely just representing a ward with a hill in it) and I’m sure there are all sorts of other interpretations you can draw.

But the third is that it can provoke the discussion and debate. The challenge is creating a culture in which we can use that constructively, recognising that there is no such thing as a perfect solution, recognising that not everyone gets what they want and also recognising that there’s a difference between policy and operations. On things like this, we want to get it right, providing the data on what we are doing and how we are doing it gives everything the chance to help us do just that.

One of my concerns about the rush towards spending transparency for councils (Wandsworth publishes spending by vendor by month) are the unintended consequences. The We Love Local Government blog raises the question of whether it is actually more likely to lead to bad, rather than good, spending decisions.

The rationale is fairly simple; because there is a fear of published spending being criticised councils go for options that may be cheaper, but worse value. The example cited is of using a cheaper hotel, but then losing the saving in transport costs because of the hotel’s location. While I’ll use this example in this post but there will be many many similar situations across the country. I know that £500 has become a psychology spending limit for many, not because of any explicit instruction, but because of the knowledge that spending will be published.The result risks false economies. £510 on hotels hits the limit and is published. But £490 on hotels and £100 on taxis does not.

I think there’s a very simple way to tackle this and retain transparency: lower the publishing limit to zero. Then there aren’t the unintended consequences of people trying to spend below arbitrary limits on single items and all spending may need justifying to the public. This moves the whole thought process from “how can I keep all the individual spending below the publishing radar” to “how can I justify the total cost.”

And while it will require a culture change (for a time the Taxpayers Alliance will have a field day) when that happens I’m optimistic enough to think there will be scope for much more intelligent debate about the role and quality of local government. Instead of knee-jerk reactions to council officials living a ‘high-life’ in a hotels would it be too much for the reaction not to about whether the trip brought as much value to the borough as it cost?

It is only marginally related, but Greater Manchester Police’s decision to tweet all their calls is an example of this. There were, predictably, outbursts that such activity was a waste of money and the police should have been on the streets (no prizes for guessing it was the Taxpayer’s Alliance seeing their blood pressure rise again). But at the end there were huge numbers of people aware of what a police force actually finds itself doing, and I suspect a lot of people in Manchester suddenly much better informed about the true level of crime and disorder in their city. It’s a fair bet that a reduction in unnecessary calls will pay for the ‘experiment’ many times over. But most

I can’t help thinking that while the initial transition may be hard – resisted by some and lead to criticism from others – the more transparency and openness there is the better for everyone.

I thought, since I have a data page, I should have some data relevant to me in there as well as data I use in posts.

There aren’t that many datasets that I think are particularly useful, but the first that sprang to mind was attendance. It’s a tricky one, because I’m elected as a councillor and part of that means I should be attending meetings and voting or expressing a view. But on the other hand formal meetings are such a small part of it. If I were to draw up a list of what makes a good councillor then attending meetings would be at the bottom of that list, there are many many more important criteria.

Havind said that, it is publicly available information and often cited politically (usually negatively) so I can’t really ignore it.

My list is fairly limited, it basically consists of public meetings I attend as a councillor or meetings to which I have been appointed by the council, I’ve back-dated to the last election and on some included a note to explain why I was absent. My track record isn’t too great, although I feel it isn’t as bad as it might look.

Of the 16 listed meetings I missed four. However, two of these were executive meetings, which, in the Wandsworth system, are basically short rubber-stamp exercises in the Wandsworth system (it’s expected the main discussion has already taken place at the scrutiny committee meeting whose decisions we approve).

I missed one school governors meeting, because it clashed with a council meeting, so whatever I did I would have missed something. And I missed one full council meeting because I was working out of London that week, however, it was the annual council – essentially the Mayor making – so it was a civic event rather than a meeting transacting substantive business.

The data page explains each meeting in a little more detail.

I have become a big fan of open data. There is power in information, and when it’s just released wonderful things can happen. I cannot express my admiration enough for Chris Taggart, the guy behind OpenlyLocal, for example. I know it’s something that Wandsworth isn’t good at, but to be fair not that many councils are good at it and in Wandsworth the web team have higher priorities thanks to a server that’s becoming increasingly unreliable!

It’s a little hobby-horse of mine, and I continue to hassle and raise it from time to time when the opportunity is there.

I was probably unreasonably excited when I was asked if it was possible to get data covering public and community toilets in Wandsworth. The data is there, on the council’s website, but not in a way you can easily manipulate. I was excited because it was proof that when you put data out there, people will use it, and generally use it for the wide benefit of the community. In this example, they were exploring the possibility of making a location aware app for people so they know where their nearest toilet is (while most can take it for granted, for many it’s an important factor that can limit their day-to-day lives).

But having got this data, what could I do with it? Well, obviously send it on to the person who requested it. But then it occurred to me that I could publish it. And, while I’m at it, I could probably become the country’s first open councillor – there are only 24 open councils after all.

So, with toilets (and data from my earlier post on Wandsworth’s most popular services) I’m opening up for business. I’ve no idea how useful it will be, how much data will be in there or whether or not it will be interesting, but at least I’m trying to hold myself to the standard I’d like to see in others.

After over 18 months I’ve been told by the Metropolitan Police to stop producing my crime maps.

I was told by a slightly convoluted route (I understand a complaint by Harrow Council prompted a chain of communication that hopped along at least three intermediaries to me) but I understand that the Met’s issues are mainly over privacy – that victims can be identified by a combination of road and crime – but also that they would increase fear of crime and that detailing the methods meant criminals could use my site to learn new ways of committing crime.

While I disagree I’m obviously not going to continue having been told to stop by the police.

And if I’m honest, I’m not that unhappy. They took a little time to produce and the policing white paper has a commitment to “street level” crime information by February of next year, so it’s not as if this sort of information isn’t coming around the corner anyway.

What’s more, while I have been producing them huge amounts of data have been made available in open formats that just weren’t there at the beginning of 2009. The London Data Store being a prime example, and just looking at the crime and community safety category immediately reveals some interesting looking datasets. I’m looking forward to being able to use the time to start looking at those and, perhaps, sharing some amateurish analysis on the blog.

View Neighbourhood Watch in Wandsworth in a larger map
A fairly hefty map, but one I thought I’d put together following my post about freedom of information.

The data I used is freely available from the council’s website (although not in a very useful format). But, with a bit of copy and paste, some processing through a few tools available on the internet and a Google spreadsheet and voila, a map sort of telling you where is, and isn’t, covered by NW in Wandsworth.

It isn’t ideal, it’s a little crowded at this size, and the Google standard flags don’t really show it off that well. Additionally, because it’s roads it isn’t that accurate. For example, a long road might only be partially covered. Finally, there are a few roads that I couldn’t find – however hard I (or Google) looked.

But I would ask one question: how is anyone’s privacy infringed by this, and how would it be infringed if I used postcodes instead of road names?