Apr 14, 3017

Just a quick note to cap off this website for the moment.

I'm not anticipating any new projects appearing here in the near future - I took a role at mySociety as a Research Associate six months ago, and this was recently extended for another year. So Inkleby as my professional brand is probably going to be dormant for a little while.

StringPrint is something I will be tinkering with because I'm still deeply frustrated with many aspects of web publishing. Various other projects may be recycled in exciting new forms.

I'm continuing to collaborate with Generation Rent on (which, with the best of luck, will become obsolute in the not-too-long).

Coverage of

Jun 08, 2016 has been updated with information about hundreds more letting agents and a report revealing what the site has discovered so far. The report is the first public demonstration of stringprint, our longform publishing system - more on that soon.

Coverage of

Letting agent fees range from zero to 780 for no apparent reason - Business Insider UK

Generation Rent beefs up calls to have letting agent fees abolished - Property Industry Eye

‘Captive’ renters paying letting agents £780 just to move in - Mirror

Tenants Charged Up To £780 In Fees To Move Home - Londonist

Call to ban letting agents’ fees -

High letting fees for York tenants are revealed and slammed - York Press

Pressure group running comparison site for letting agent fees - Letting Agent Today

The highest and lowest letting agent fees in Manchester revealed - Manchester Evening News

Fixing Postal Vote Application

Apr 10, 2016

I'm currently frantically planning to leave the country for a few months - and I'm unlucky enough to miss several important elections.

I hit the "apply for postal vote" part on the to-leave list and discovered that the postal vote process is still pdf based: you print out the form, fill out the details and have to look up separately the address for which of the 376 addresses you need to send it to.

Last time I had to do the pdf dance I ended up being the victim of an administrative problem that meant I didn't get to vote. Since then the registration process has moved online and that sort of thing shouldn't happen - but it stays on your mind.

So I started thinking if there was a way of making this process a little nicer and set it as a one-day project. The end result is - a website that automates some of the fiddlier bits of filling out the form.

On this page you fill out an electronic version of the form :

  • Pre-populates a pdf of the form with your details (which may have been sped up if your browser can autocomplete your address).
  • Given the elections you choose, it puts the correct date or date range into the form.
  • Uses your postcode to look up your local authority and gives you the address of the electoral registration office to return the form to.

You then need to print off the form, sign it, and send it to the address listed.

This seems like a step in the right direction. If you're like me and your disability means hand-written forms are a bit of a mission this reduces the manual work needed massively. Getting rid of the task of looking up registration offices or election dates reduces friction from the application process - but you still need to have access to a printer, envelope and postage. Can we take out even more steps?

The postal vote is a bit of a dangerous thing, if I know your address and your date of birth (which I do if you're on the open register and your facebook security settings are lax) and am willing to fake your signature, I can not only apply for your postal vote but have it sent to my house. Now this makes it a little obvious when people start investigating - but the damage is done by then. Keeping it paper based does at least slow you down a bit - and as we'll see the current process is legally required to be paper based.

This makes me a little anxious about further automating the process of applying for a postal vote. I see two possible ways of going about it - the first is the one-mail approach:

  1. You fill out the form
  2. Sign online using a widget
  3. Micropayment for postage
  4. I (or a third-party through some sort of postal api) send the form to the office identified by your postcode.

This makes me anxious for several reasons. The signature widget technically works, in fact it's already built into the program - you can sign your name using the mouse (or finger on a phone) and it will add the signature into the pdf. But I've turned it off because I think it would be a bad idea to use it.

One problem is if one of your concerns is accessibility creating a more accessible version of the form only to demand people do a complicated motion with a mouse seems odd. The more substantial problem is the legality of e-signatures.

In general if all parties agree that an electronic or typed signature is valid then it is as good as a signed signature. In this case signature is required by statute - the Electoral Administration Act 2006 added the requirements for postal vote application to require a signature and date of birth explicitly as an anti-fraud measure. The registration officer is allowed to make exceptions in the case of disability or inability to sign, but there is no reference to alternative means of signing. There's an assumption in the law here that it is the norm to sign in a "consistent and distinctive way" - which as more and more voters come of age from an education system that doesn't prioritise penmanship seems unlikely to be true for normal people forever - but the context of this comments make it clear that 'signature' is explicitly referring to a written signature.

So to enable the easy technical fix of a signature widget you'd first need to check with all 376 electoral registration officers if that's ok - if any say no (and they have reasonable reason not to), you have to add more complicated logic to deal with those councils. If you're anxious about a) taking people's money and not giving them votes or b) ELECTORAL FRAUD you want to be careful here. More so if you're planning on not being in the country while all this is happening.

But let's leave that hurdle behind and assume it's all alright - your next problem is that you are now the important link in the chain between the voter and their vote. You need to add extra feedback stages (when you send the application off) to reassure people that everything is going ok. If a hole in your process causes someone not to be able to vote this is quite serious. Is this responsibility something you're happy subcontracting out? I'm not.

So this brings me to the second "two-mail" approach.

  1. You fill out the form.
  2. Micropayment for postage
  3. I (or third party) SEND YOU the unsigned form and a pre-paid envelope for the ERO in question.
  4. You sign the form, put it in the envelope and post it.

This adds time and postage cost to the process but is preferable because a) real signatures b) the voter is the last person to see the form before it is posted - it's their responsibility.

If the current version sees any use I'll give some thought to if it's worth setting up the pipelines for this to work (it is that beautiful thing, a profit-generating piece of civic tech) but then my problem is fleeing the country during EU referendum stage. If I was going to be in the country I would absolutely be buying up envelopes at this point - but if I was I would never have thought to apply for a postal vote in the first place and wouldn't be looking at the problem. Hmm.

Any thoughts? @alexparsons or alex (at)

Culture Reuse Bot

Mar 29, 2016

New Robot! The Culture Reuse Bot downloads old public domain films from the internet archive and tries to find interesting bits to share.

What is interesting? Specifically it looks for shots that are reasonably short and reasonably bright on the grounds those are likely to be visually nice. There is also a better chance they contain atomisable elements of a performance that make the clip interesting even out context.

Hopefully. Sometimes.

It updates a tumblr as well as its twitter.

All code for Inkleby Robots can be found on the github page.

We Name The Stars

Mar 20, 2016

New Project! We Name The Stars is a way to explore the database place names in outer space. It lets you explore maps and gives context on what the names mean.

Essentially it’s a demonstration of how a dataset can be transformed by highlighting connections and bringing context to the information. So there’s a crater at blah coordinates - but where is that? Can we see it on a map? What’s nearby? How long would it take to get somewhere else? It’s named after someone, but who is that person? Where can I found out more? It combines data from eight different datasets to reveal new information that wasn't visible in any of the component parts.

There's also a companion robot, @WNTS_Rover that's visiting every crater on the moon and tweeting elevation maps as it goes.

As an extra fun thing, I wrote something for CityMetric about the history of naming things in space I picked up while putting this together.

And for coders, this yielded three fun new things for our github:

moon_elevation_reader - the code needed to extract elevation data from ISIS Cube files given lat and long. This is used to get the height information to generate the elevation maps the rover produces.

google_maps_tile_converter - this is a basic script to process an image and carve it into tiles at different zoom levels for use in mapping interfaces like google maps.

world_tiles - The collection of tiles the above spit out for planets other than the Earth, Moon and Mars. Can be used to create your own maps.

Letting Fees UK

Feb 22, 2016

Fees for the first sets of councils are up on Letting Fees UK - our letting fee comparison project we've been building with Generation Rent.

Read more on the Generation Rent blog.

Letting Fees UK is a combination display and crowdsourcing platform. It's designed to make it easy for transparency volunteers to add details of the fees charged by letting agents into the system (and also includes feature to help organisers error check this work).

Once the information is in the system, it channels it in a way that makes prices clearer to renters and help local authorities enforce disclosure rules. Have a look!