18 June 2009

MP Expenses 2.0

All credit to the Guardian which today launched a web application which had been built in the space of about a week, allowing its audience to collaborate with its journalists in analysing the newly released MP expenses documents. Charles Arthur explains how they did it here.

This is absolute genius and in a short space of time tens of thousands of pages have been reviewed and the interesting ones flagged.

Crowdsourcing is a tried and tested Web 2.0 technique for analysing data and producing content cheaply and quickly - arguably the comments feature on every website is a method of crowdsourcing content as much as it is about providing a feedback mechanism. But it is surely a first in the UK that a major media outlet has put so much reliance on the good judgment of its readership and in relation to such a major story.

Maybe next year, we could each read a single page of the budget report and flag up whether there in anything interesting in it?

On a professional level, I have used litigation databases which rely on large sets of documents being profiled through a web interface - but the lesson of the Guardian's experiment is surely that by directing the analysis and keeping it very simple (with a very friendly user-interface) you can sort through masses of data very quickly.

Just what I was going to say...

The furore over Prince Charles' intervention in the Chelsea Barracks development has been building for a number of weeks and I have been following the coverage of it in Building Design (which has a story about the new competition here) and elsewhere. Things came to a head earlier this week when Lord Rogers well and truly threw his toys out of his pram, calling Charles' actions "undemocratic".

I was going to wite a lengthy post arguing that a decision of a private landowner to withdraw a planning application has nothing to do with democracy. Rogers is effectively suggesting that because something has gone through planning it must be built - surely that cannot be right?

And in relation to Rogers' criticism that Charles was abusing his (unelected) influence, I was simply going to question what influence Rogers asserted to get the project in the first place and then to get it through planning - and ask how they are really any different?

It is probably just as well I haven't written such a post, as no doubt it would irritate those members of my family who are members (associate or otherwise) of the RIBA, and in any event, Alice Thomson in the Times has written a much better articles which is better argued than anything I would have written.

PS - what is also quite fun, knowing where Rogers lives (very nearby the Barracks as it happens), using Google Streetmap, it is possible to get this shot of his sitting room, complete with sight of his Mao Tse Tung by Andy Warhol.

This is a better image, via Zemanta:
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05 June 2009

What is Tom Watson really up to?

At the end of the most tumultuous week in British politics since May 1997 it is easy to forget the resignation of the low-profile loyal junior Cabinet Office Minister, Tom Watson MP. Devoted readers of the blog will recall that I have met Watson and praised him for his role as Minister for Digital Engagement.  However, as observers of the Westminster Village know well, Tom Watson is not just the cuddly figure who makes friends on Twitter, but a key figure in the "inner circle" (copyright, Caroline Flint MP) of people around Gordon Brown, and has frequently been described by others as Brown's "enforcer". 

Watson made his resignation letter into a blog post earlier today and much as trailed in the press, he has cited pressures on his young family as the reason for his departure from government. No doubt such pressures do exist and not for one minute do I pretend to know what he has been going through, although he has recently won a libel case against the Daily Mail based an article written by Iain Dale on the Damian McBride affair. 

But if the "painful" pressure on his young family is to be taken at face value, what are we to make of the enigmatic statement at the end of his letter:

I would still like to make a contribution as a campaigner, helping you to lead Labour into the next general election, which I know we both believe Labour can and must win. We both came into politics for the same reasons; a passionate belief in decency, justice and fairness for ordinary people and an equally certain conviction that only Labour has the courage and the competence to make it happen.

That is why I will remain alongside you as we fight and win the next election under your leadership. Though not, with some wistful regret, as a member of your government.

My suspicion is that in order to serve Gordon Brown more effectively, Watson has had to ditch his ministerial role.  As a minister, Watson had civil servants who had be shielded from his political activity, he had ministerial responsibilities to undertake (the ministerial trip to New York written about below which was curtailed by the political mini-crisis in September 2008) and so on.  He's free from those responsibilities and restrictions from now on and can dedicate himself fully to Brown, who is of course, a bit short-staffed since the departure of McBride. 

It's a shame really - as I told him via Twitter today - the greater good might have been better served by keeping the ministerial role and ditching the "save Brown" one. 

01 June 2009

What is the relevance of the "average wage"?

Much of the discussion around MPs pay and expenses has made reference to the "average wage" in the UK. This got me thinking and I started to do some research, but immediately ran into a fog of adjusted numbers, put out in the main by the Institute of Fiscal Studies. The IFS's statistics, which were picked up by the BBC News website and were the basis for a number of graphs that have been repeated elsewhere, including by Guido Fawkes, such as this one:

Even on the IFS's own figures, the "typical weekly income" quoted here is the median figure of £393 per week, when perhaps the more relevant MEAN average figure of £487 should have been quoted (see: IFS report on poverty and inequality for these figures) - no doubt the BBC journalists were looking for the biggest spread. Furthermore, these numbers are adjusted for tax (including council tax) and number of dependent children, which makes them hard to link back to annual salaries.

Personally, I am better able to deal with annual gross amounts when talking about salary, because that's the basis of what I earn and what it says in my employment contract. Luckily, help is at hand from the Office of National Statistics, which gives these number in all sorts of formats.

For the record, the mean average annual gross salary in Great Britain in 2008 was £26,020.

However, if this is the basis of a meaningful comparison with MPs salaries, it is notable that the mean average annual gross salary for men in full time employment in 2008 was £35,122.

Of course, many men are at the start of their careers when they are earning less money, bringing down the average, so I looked up the breakdown by age and the highest earning group are men between 40 and 49 (which is probably the typical age of an MP and therefore perhaps a fairer comparison), and the average wage for this group was £40,786.

If we put him on the BBC graph, it looks like this:
So, against the figure of £40,786, an MP's salary of £65,000 or so no longer looks quite so excessive - it is certainly not a multiple of that figure.

But what sparked all this off, was considering that fiendishly complicated New Labour innovation: working family tax credits. These are means tested credits which taper off, but are still of value to a family whose combined income is less than £58,000 per year.

I thought that was an interesting figure to bear in mind, on the basis that the government makes the judgement on behalf of "ordinary people" with a family that if their combined earnings are less than £58,000 - only marginally less than an MP's earnings, they are entitled to state benefit.

I am not suggesting for one moment that this is an excuse for Scamalot or even an argument to pay MPs more, but I do think these figures could help inform that debate.