What we learnt from Boundary hunting

You may remember that in August this year, mySociety and Open Knowledge International launched a survey, looking for the sources of digital files that hold electoral boundaries… for every country in the world. Well, we are still looking!

There is a good reason for this hunt: the files are integral for people who want to make online tools to help citizens contact their local politicians, who need to be able to match users to the right representative. From mySociety’s site TheyWorkForYou to Surfers against Sewage’s Plastic Free Parliament campaign, to Call your Rep in the US, all these tools required boundary data before they could be built.

Photo by Chase Clark on Unsplash

We know that finding this data openly licensed is still a real challenge for many countries, which is of course why we launched the survey. We encourage people to continue to submit links to the survey, and we would love if people experienced in electoral boundary data, could help by reviewing submissions: if you are able to offer a few hours of help, please email democracy@mysociety.org

The EveryBoundary survey FAQs tell you everything you need to know about what to look for when boundary hunting. But we also wanted to share some top tips that we have learnt through our own experiences.

Do

  • Start the search by looking at authoritative sources first: electoral commissions, national mapping agencies, national statistics bodies, government data portals.
  • Look for data formats (.shp, .geojson, kml etc), and not just a PDF.
  • Ask around if you can’t find the data: if a map is published digitally, then the data behind it exists somewhere!

Don’t

  • Confuse administrative boundaries with electoral boundaries — they can be the same, but they often aren’t (even when they share a name).
  • Assume boundaries stay the same — check for redistricting, and make sure your data is current.

If you get stuck

  • Electoral boundaries are normally defined in legislation; sometimes this takes the form of lists of the administrative subdivisions which make up the electoral districts. If you can get the boundaries for the subdivisions you can build up the electoral districts with this information.
  • Make FOI requests to get hold of the data.
  • If needed, escalate the matter. We have heard of groups writing to their representatives, explaining the need for the data . And don’t forget: building tools that strengthen democracy is a worthwhile cause.  

mySociety is asking people to share electoral boundary data as part of efforts to make information on every politician in the world freely available to all, and support the creation of a Democratic Commons.  Electoral boundary files are an essential part of the data infrastructure of a Democratic Commons. A directory of electoral boundary sources is a potential benefit to many people and organisations  — so let’s keep up the search!