Thursday, May 14, 2009

Mashing up MPs expenses with transparency

Tony's been playing with Google maps and IBM's Many Eyes visualisation system again and this time he's going to make himself very popular with our elected representatives in parliament by generating easy-to-read comparative maps of MPs expenses. Wonderful. Charles Arthur at the Guardian explains.

Link to Tony Hirst's map

MPs and travel: now it's laid bare. Tony Hirst - to whom we referred yesterday - has been busy again with our data, this time creating a Google Map showing MPs, their constituencies, and their travel claims. A word of explanation on how it's done: take the travel expenses, which are coded by MP; remove the bedevilling £ sign and commas from the damn thing; then create a table of the MPs' names and travel expenses. Now comes the clever part. Get the MPs' names and postcodes from, which has an API for precisely this task. Next, match the MPs' names to their postcodes. And now feed that into a Google Map, in which the colour of the pin depends on the level of expense: : Red: > £25,000; Pink: £20,000- £24,999; Yellow: £15,000- £19,999; Green: £10,000- £14,999; Blue: £5,000- £9,999; Purple: < £4,999.

You can see the map in its original form (or just click on the picture above)."

And today:
"But while MPs' attempts to excuse themselves plumb new depths ("we're not as corrupt as other countries" from Harriet Harman is my favourite so far), something more important is being ­temporarily ignored, namely, how are we going to police this in future?

The answer I'd offer: put it all into an XML feed. Let us watch our MPs at work, and let us police their expenses. It should be quite simple for parliament's fees office – which already seems to have a fully functional CD burner – to join the 21st century and get an internet connection. Then, when an MP's expense claim is approved, it goes into the feed. Leave the rest to us; we'll start to mash it up against mapping systems, against other MPs, against other countries. We'll rapidly find out whose numbers don't seem to be stacking up correctly compared to the other ones.

We've already started this at the Guardian with the help of Tony Hirst of the Open University with the first, less-detailed wave of MPs' expenses , which almost immediately showed those MPs whose travel expenses seemed out of line. Sure, you have to push aside a few of the pushpins (by zooming in) but you'll quickly spot the odd ones out.

And then we can ask them why their expenses are so odd, rather than having to rely on newspapers relying in turn on public-­spirited whistleblowers motivated by outrage. It would work like this: no expense claim, no reimbursement. Expense claim and reimbursement? Then output on the XML feed. Simple.

This is open source as it could, and perhaps really should, be applied to politics. Forget quibbles about Linux; this is about our elected representatives realising that their insistence that they can keep DNA, approve 21-day detention, and nod through CCTV carries its own element of the panopticon, the Victorian concept of the prison where everything could be seen. If you want to watch us, then we want to be able to see you, and what you're doing.

After all, it's not as if you are claiming for the cleaning of your moat, or clearing moles, or flipping home addresses in a manner that would otherwise attract the attention of HM Revenue & Customs over unpaid capital gains tax ... is it?"

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