Public Sector Transparency: We have the Technology

May 19, 2009 7:08 PM

The whole MPs' expenses scandal has reinforced the need for transparency in public spending. The entire sorry affair, from John Reid's sparkly toilet seat to Elliot Morley's phantom mortgage,is a textbook study of exactly how secrecy breeds deceit. Happily, the internet provides just the technology to change that.


Indeed, the current scandal has had the benefit of attracting such public interest in the issue that a variety of very interesting web tools have sprung up spontaneously allowing people to analyse the data that is being made available. If the greed of MPs is an advert for why secrecy is  bad thing, the innovation that internet users have recently displayed is a fantastic advert for exactly why full information about expenses must be released.


Far from behaving immaturely with the information so far released, as some MPs have been suggesting, web users have been carrying out some great analysis to assess the value MPs provide. (Indeed, their professionalism is in stark contrast to the petty behaviour of some Honourable Members).


I've picked out a number of these tools here for the interest of this blog's readers. If you come across more, do link to them in the comments:


HeatMap 1) The Expenses Heat Map


This is a simple, and extremely user-friendly, device that provides a heat map of MPs' expenses and allowances by constituency. Deep red is the highest claims while light yellow is the lowest. Crucially, it is also clickable, meaning you can double click any constituency to find the name, party and detailed claims of the MP.


By totalling up all expenses, it does perhaps lay itself open to some criticism - travel will naturally vary with distance and so on - but it is an incredibly useful tool for sketching trends and picking out particularly high or low claimers.


2) Mapping Expenses by Category


Over at the Guardian's Data Store, Tony Hirst has produced another mapping function for expenses. Whilst lacking the attractiveness and utility of mapping across full constituency boundaries, he has looked specifically at travel and allowed users to switch between different categories of travel.


3) Parliamentary Aide


Whoever runs the Parliamentary Aide site has done a good job of it - a simple, well presented combination of totalising how much MPs' have pocketed in dubious claims versus how much they have paid back, combined with a feed of key news and twitter conversations. This is a good way to distil down the flurry of news about MPs' expenses into key totals. With new allegations every day, and panicked apology cheques being waived by the dozen, it's easy to lose track of the bigger picture.


One of the interesting things about the Tories' publication of their Shadow Cabinet expenses details was that they did it in spreadsheet format without £ signs, thus allowing and indeed inviting people to feed the data into different calculations and visualisations. This is presumably a foretaste of the "Google Government" approach to transparency that they have been promising. If so, it's very welcome and a sign of things to come.


People are keen to know exactly what is going on, and there is a huge amount of IT and statistical expertise out there that can be put to use for free to analyse the data. Let the daylight in.

The whole MPs' expenses scandal has reinforced the need for transparency in public spending. The entire sorry affair, from John Reid's sparkly toilet seat to Elliot Morley's phantom mortgage,is a textbook study of exactly how secrecy breeds deceit. Happily, the internet provides just the technology to change that.


Indeed, the current scandal has had the benefit of attracting such public interest in the issue that a variety of very interesting web tools have sprung up spontaneously allowing people to analyse the data that is being made available. If the greed of MPs is an advert for why secrecy is  bad thing, the innovation that internet users have recently displayed is a fantastic advert for exactly why full information about expenses must be released.


Far from behaving immaturely with the information so far released, as some MPs have been suggesting, web users have been carrying out some great analysis to assess the value MPs provide. (Indeed, their professionalism is in stark contrast to the petty behaviour of some Honourable Members).


I've picked out a number of these tools here for the interest of this blog's readers. If you come across more, do link to them in the comments:


HeatMap 1) The Expenses Heat Map


This is a simple, and extremely user-friendly, device that provides a heat map of MPs' expenses and allowances by constituency. Deep red is the highest claims while light yellow is the lowest. Crucially, it is also clickable, meaning you can double click any constituency to find the name, party and detailed claims of the MP.


By totalling up all expenses, it does perhaps lay itself open to some criticism - travel will naturally vary with distance and so on - but it is an incredibly useful tool for sketching trends and picking out particularly high or low claimers.


2) Mapping Expenses by Category


Over at the Guardian's Data Store, Tony Hirst has produced another mapping function for expenses. Whilst lacking the attractiveness and utility of mapping across full constituency boundaries, he has looked specifically at travel and allowed users to switch between different categories of travel.


3) Parliamentary Aide


Whoever runs the Parliamentary Aide site has done a good job of it - a simple, well presented combination of totalising how much MPs' have pocketed in dubious claims versus how much they have paid back, combined with a feed of key news and twitter conversations. This is a good way to distil down the flurry of news about MPs' expenses into key totals. With new allegations every day, and panicked apology cheques being waived by the dozen, it's easy to lose track of the bigger picture.


One of the interesting things about the Tories' publication of their Shadow Cabinet expenses details was that they did it in spreadsheet format without £ signs, thus allowing and indeed inviting people to feed the data into different calculations and visualisations. This is presumably a foretaste of the "Google Government" approach to transparency that they have been promising. If so, it's very welcome and a sign of things to come.


People are keen to know exactly what is going on, and there is a huge amount of IT and statistical expertise out there that can be put to use for free to analyse the data. Let the daylight in.

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