Don’t consider this to be a finished website, but I think I’ve finally reached a stage when I wouldn’t be too embarrassed about releasing this thing into the wild. Visit the database here.
I started work on this website at the beginning of January, but it is really the culmination of years of work at Unlock Democracy and its predecessor the New Politics Network. Eleven years ago, the NPN was responsible for the first attempt to build a public-oriented site based on the Electoral Commission‘s register of donations, in the form of Cleanpolitix. It was pretty basic and incredibly frustrating to use, so I redeveloped it as Party Watch.
Party Watch was useable but pretty ugly and I made a number of mistakes along the way. That project ended in 2007 and I moved onto other things. But I was always keen to revive it and implement what I had learnt from the experience.
For various reasons, UD could never prioritise it as a project, and I never did get back to it. The investment it needed wasn’t finances however (well, not much), but time.
I’m currently out of work, and thought this would be a good project to start – both as a way to scratch my itch, and to develop my own coding skills. So this website has been my first experience at using jQuery, Bootstrap and Object Oriented Programming (which I’m slowly getting my head around).
A technical challenge
As you will quickly see, the website doesn’t do an awful lot right now. Currently, it lets you look up party funders and see who they have given money to – and when. The biggest part of my job thus far – literally 95% – has been developing a system for finding multiple records of the same organisation or individual and merging them.
This matters because, as anyone who is vaguely familiar with the Electoral Commission’s register will be able to tell you, it’s an unholy mess. Party funders do not register, the parties do, and it is the parties that submit the data to the Commission. This arrives in a variety of different formats. Thus it is that the same individual might be listed as “John Smith”, “John A Smith”, “Mr John Smith”, “na John Smith”, “Dr John A Smith”, “Sir John Smith” (once they get an honour), and any variation therein. And that’s not counting the typos or the even wider variety of ways in which company and other organisational data gets submitted.
This messiness is ultimately what killed Party Watch – keeping ahead of all the different misspellings and misappropriations defeated me. So Party Funding has been built from the ground up with this in mind. And it has been designed to be reversible – one of the big mistakes I made with Party Watch – so that if I make a mistake it can be undone. Sadly, that means having the database comparing three different tables of data, which slows it down somewhat.
I’m not even close to deduping all 45,000+ records on the database. However, I’ve made it a relatively simple task. And you can help me with this! Simply register on the website, search for someone and, if you come across two or more records that should clearly be combined, combine them by following the instructions on the tool. You should hopefully find it pretty simple.
After a short break, my next project will be building pages dedicated to the recipients of funds – political parties, their various accounting units (local parties, mostly), third parties (campaign organisations which campaign in elections), “permitted participants” (campaign organisations which take part in referendums) and “regulated donees” (political organisations and politicians). The data on this side of the table is much easier to handle because the recipients are registered and have unique identifiers. On the other hand, there is much more data to handle (try selecting the top donors of all time for the Conservative Party to give you an idea), and presenting this in a meaningful way that doesn’t the server to slow down to a crawl is my next big technical challenge. It should be fun!
Please submit all substantial feedback and advice on the relevant page for ease of reference. If you’d rather communicate by email, drop me a line on jamesgraham*at*partyfunding*dot*uk. Thanks!