Boundary review data and tools should be opened up to the public

There is a chance to introduce an imaginative new way of opening up the political process and public sector data to the public in the legislation currently going through Parliament to change the rules for Parliamentary boundary reviews.

As under the old rules, submitting proposals to the Boundary Commission, or commenting on their own proposals, will require access to electoral register and geographic data except for the most minor of comments (or debates over constituency names, which can generate deep passions). The better access you have to such information and the more sophisticated the computer tools you posses to manipulate it, the easier it is to present a strong case.

In practice this has meant that it is only the larger political parties or organisations (particularly councils) that really have the chance to fully engage with the boundaries system. Although large numbers of comments come from others, they are usually restricted to particular niches or points of detail rather than, for example, a counter-proposal over which London boroughs should see Parliamentary constituencies cutting across their boundaries.

There is, however, an answer to this. It is to have the Boundary Commission authorities make their data, and a tool to manipulate the data, freely available via the internet. This would give everyone the same basic tools to analyse proposals and create suggestions. It has been done with other similar IT systems elsewhere already.

Moreover, because the Boundary Commission for England’s own core boundaries IT system is now getting very old.

The Boundary Commission for England’s attitude so far appears to be that it will keep its existing system for the next review and replace it after that. That makes a lot of sense: use your existing systems when you have new rules to cope with and then switch systems once you are used to the new rules. That switch will provide an opportunity to introduce a new GIS system which makes the tools and data for its internal use also available for public use. Because it would only be adding an public interface, and would only replicate what has already been done elsewhere, this limits the costs and risks.

The IT situations for the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland Boundary Commissions are all slightly different. Here too however, there is scope to make a public tool available without significantly risking high costs or faulty IT, especially if work is shared with the Boundary Commission for England.

How to ensure all this happens after the first review under the new rules? A simple amendment to the legislation going through Parliament would suffice. It could require the Boundary Commissions to make their data and a tool to manipulate them freely available for public use, with a start date after the first review.

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