The Cabinet Office, in a move towards greater transparency, are attempting to publish all their data online. This isn’t really news but I don’t think news organizations are looking at this data so I’m scraping it and seeing what it has to offer. So as an exercise I’m scraping the page where ministerial gifts, hospitality, travel and meetings with external organisations are published as CSV or PDF. All this should be pretty much covered by Who’s Lobbying but I’m hoping to set up a little social media experiment (more on that to come). So here is all the data, set to scrape the site every month. You can download it all.
I whacked it into Google Refine to deal with the different spellings, nuances and the change in the format of the date. The date transformation option never seems to work for me in Refine so I exported it and opened it up in Excel to get the data out in chronological order. This may sound cumbersome to those who don’t work with data it’s actually quite quick and easy once you’ve tried it. Anyway, I looked at some of the more popular reasons for meeting ministers and grabbed a screen shot of the Excel table (Refine allows you to export a html table but I’ll have to get it to open up in Firefox so I can use my full page grab add-on).
I looked at the meetings for Big Society:
The major meeting with the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister in May involved Young Foundation, Community Links, Antigone, Big Society Network, Balsall Health Forum, London Citizens, Participle, Talk About Local, CAN Breakthrough, Mayor of Middlesborough, Business in the Community, Esmee Fairbairn, Greener Leith, St Giles Trust, Big Issue Invest, Kids Company. Since then there has been a steady trickle of over 30 meetings with Nick Hurd, Oliver Letwin and Francis Maude about Big Society. Note that these are all Conservative MPs so the Big Society is already looking smaller along coalition party lines.
Sure, they have the titles to be involved but the trend in the data seems to be more about big financing. Meetings with the likes of Goldman Sachs, Barclays, British Banking Association and Co-op Financial Servies leads one to believe that Big Society is being outsourced to local communities but the big financing has to come from the top. In Building the Big Society, the Cabinet Office writes:
We will use funds from dormant bank accounts to establish a Big Society Bank, which will provide new finance for neighbourhood groups, charities, social enterprises and other nongovernmental bodies
What are ‘funds from dormant bank accounts’ and why didn’t they use these instead of looking to the government to bail them out? The banks and their reckless trading in toxic assets and credit default swaps led to a massive recession. This shed the light on reckless government borrowing and the massive deficit. This led to budget cuts to local services and the need for the Big Society. Which is now being funded by the banks! Am I missing something?
The next thing to look at from the data is the category ‘Introductory Meeting’:
Introductory meetings interest me as I imagine it pays to be at the back of a politicians mind. It must be worthwhile to have some ear time and get your points across. I’m sure not any old Joe can get an introductory meeting. There must be PR companies that specialise in getting these meetings (lobby firms) so it’s interesting how many large companies are going to appear on this list. In fact, the purpose for one meeting was put down as ‘Lobbying’ with UK Public Affairs Council. They have a register of firms and clients published in evil PDF (go figure). Will have to scrape that.
Lastly, I thought the ‘Renegotiation of Contract’ category might be of interest so here it is:
A lot of these are big technology companies yet the government is notorious for accumulating huge costs with little effectiveness when it comes to implementing new IT systems. I also wonder whether Vodafone’s tax dispute was known during the negotiation of their contract with the Cabinet Office.
I’m getting the data out so that anyone with inside knowledge can put two and two together to further the information. I’m churning the data in so that what can be churned out is journalism and not churnalism. That’s the idea anyway. Just looking at the data is a step in the right direction so anyone interested in data journalism, just keep on looking at what’s coming out. And I’ll try and put it into a context that has journalistic value.