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What we learnt from Boundary hunting

- December 10, 2018 in #mysociety, Open Data Census, open data survey, open politics, politics

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 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!
  • 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!

Help us find the world’s electoral boundaries!

- August 7, 2018 in #mysociety, Open Data Census, open data survey, open politics, politics

mySociety and Open Knowledge International are looking for the digital files that hold electoral boundaries, for every country in the world — and you can help.  Yeah, we know — never let it be said we don’t know how to party. But seriously, there’s a very good reason for this request. When people make online tools to help citizens contact their local politicians, they need to be able to match users to the right representatives. So head on over to the Every Boundary survey and see how you can help — or read on for a bit more detail.

Image credit: Sam Poullain

Data for tools that empower citizens

If you’ve used mySociety’s sites TheyWorkForYou — or any of the other parliamentary monitoring sites we’ve helped others to run around the world — you’ll have seen this matching in action. Electoral boundary data is also integral in campaigning and political accountability,  from Surfers against Sewage’s ‘Plastic Free Parliament’ campaign, to Call your Rep in the US. These sites all work on the precept that while people may not know the names of all their representatives at every level — well, do you? — people do tend to know their own postcode or equivalent. Since postcodes fall within boundaries, once both those pieces of information are known, it’s simple to present the user with their correct constituency or representative. So the boundaries of electoral districts are an essential piece of the data needed for such online tools.  As part of mySociety’s commitment to the Democratic Commons project, we’d like to be able to provide a single place where anyone planning to run a politician-contacting site can find these boundary files easily.

And here’s why we need you

Electoral boundaries are the lines that demarcate where constituencies begin and end. In the old days, they’d have been painstakingly plotted on a paper map, possibly accessible to the common citizen only by appointment. These days, they tend to be available as digital files, available via the web. Big step forward, right? But, as with every other type of political data, the story is not quite so simple. There’s a great variety of organisations responsible for maintaining electoral boundary files across different countries, and as a result, there’s little standardisation in where and how they are published.

How you can help

We need the boundary files for 231 countries (or as we more accurately — but less intuitively — refer to them, ‘places’), and for each place we need the boundaries for constituencies at national, regional and city levels. So there’s plenty to collect. As we so often realise when running this sort of project, it’s far easier for many people to find a few files each than it would be for our small team to try to track them all down. And that, of course, is where you come in. Whether you’ve got knowledge of your own country’s boundary files and where to find them online, or you’re willing to spend a bit of time searching around, we’d be so grateful for your help. Fortunately, there’s a tool we can use to help collect these files — and we didn’t even have to make it ourselves! The Open Data Survey, first created by Open Knowledge International to assess and display just how much governmental information around the world is freely available as open data, has gone on to aid many projects as they collect data for their own campaigns and research. Now we’ve used this same tool to provide a place where you can let us know where to find that electoral boundary data we need. Start here  — and please feel free to get in touch if anything isn’t quite clear, or you have any general questions. You might want to check the FAQs first though! Thanks for your help — it will go on to improve citizen empowerment and politician accountability throughout the world. And that is not something everyone can say they’ve done.

Yellow Journalism: The “Fake News” of the 19th Century

- February 21, 2017 in donald trump, fake news, gutter press, history of fake news, how old is fake news, joseph pulitzer, newspapers, politics, spanish-american war, war, william randolph hearst, yellow journalism, yellow press

Illustrations from Puck magazine on the great scandal of the Yellow Press, the birth of tabloid journalism.

Yellow Journalism: The “Fake News” of the 19th Century

- February 21, 2017 in donald trump, fake news, gutter press, history of fake news, how old is fake news, joseph pulitzer, newspapers, politics, spanish-american war, tabloid journalism, war, william randolph hearst, yellow journalism, yellow press

Illustrations from Puck magazine on the great scandal of the Yellow Press, the birth of tabloid journalism.

Yellow Journalism: The “Fake News” of the 19th Century

- February 21, 2017 in donald trump, fake news, gutter press, history of fake news, how old is fake news, joseph pulitzer, newspapers, politics, spanish-american war, tabloid journalism, war, william randolph hearst, yellow journalism, yellow press

Peddling lies in public goes back to antiquity, but it is the with the Tabloid Wars of the 19th-century when it first reached the widespread outcry and fever pitch of scandal familiar today.

Despotism (1946)

- February 2, 2017 in america, control, despotism, fascism, politics, power, Totalitarianism, war

Short from Encyclopaedia Britannica Films, published a year after the end of WW2, exploring the characteristics and causes of despotism.

Despotism (1946)

- February 2, 2017 in america, control, despotism, fascism, politics, power, Totalitarianism, war

Short from Encyclopaedia Britannica Films, published a year after the end of WW2, exploring the characteristics and causes of despotism.

Fantasy Frontbench – giving the public a way to compare politicians

- April 17, 2015 in elections, Fantasy Frontbench, Open Data, politics

This is a guest blog post by Matt Smith, who is a learning technologist at UCL. He is interested in how technology can be used to empower communities.


Fantasy Frontbench is a not-for-profit and openly licensed project aimed at providing the public with an engaging and accessible platform for directly comparing politicians. A twist on the popular fantasy football concept, the site uses open voting history data from Public Whip and They Work For You. This allows users to create their own fantasy ‘cabinet’ by selecting and sorting politicians on how they have voted in Parliament on key policy issues such as EU integration, Updating Trident, Same-sex marriage and NHS reform. Once created, users can see how their fantasy frontbench statistically breaks down by gender, educational background, age, experience and voting history. They can then share and debate their selection on social media. The site is open licensed and we hope to make datasets of user selections available via figshare for academic inquiry.
A wholly state educated frontbench, from our gallery.

A wholly state educated frontbench, from our gallery.

Aim of the project

Our aim is to present political data in a way that is engaging and accessible to those who may traditionally feel intimidated by political media. We wish to empower voters through information and provide them with the opportunity to compare politicians on the issues that most matter to them. We hope the tool will encourage political discourse and increase voter engagement. Skærmbillede 2015-04-17 kl. 16.41.54

Uses in education

The site features explanations of the electoral system and will hopefully help learners to easily understand how the cabinet is formed, the roles and responsibilities of cabinet ministers and the primary processes of government. Moreover, we hope as learners use the site, it will raise questions surrounding the way in which MPs vote in Parliament and the way in which bills are debated and amended. Finally, we host a gallery page which features a number of frontbenches curated by our team. This allows learners to see how different groups and demographics of politicians would work together. Such frontbenches include an All Female Frontbench, Youngest Frontbench, Most Experienced Frontbench, State Educated Frontbench, and a Pro Same-sex Marriage Frontbench, to name but a few.
Users can see how their frontbench in Parliament has voted on 75 different policy issues.

Users can see how their frontbench in Parliament has voted on 75 different policy issues.


Over the coming weeks, we will continue to develop the site, introducing descriptions of the main political parties, adding graphs which will allow users to track or ‘follow’ how politicians are voting, as well as adding historical frontbenches to the gallery e.g. Tony Blair’s 1997 Frontbench, Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 Frontbench and Winston Churchill’s Wartime Frontbench. For further information or if you would like to work with us, please contact or tweet us at @FantasyFbench.


Fantasy Frontbench is a not-for-profit organisation and is endorsed and funded by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust Ltd. Javiera Atenas provided advice on open licensing and open data for the project.

Moonblight and Six Feet of Romance: Dan Carter Beard’s Foray into Fiction

- June 11, 2014 in Art & Illustrations, Books, boy scouts of america, daniel carter beard, illustration, labor movement, Literature, mark twain, Moonblight, politics, scouts, six feet of romance

An esoteric disease which reveals things in their true light; three pairs of disembodied feet galavanting about the countryside - Abigail Walthausen explores the brief but strange literary career of Daniel Carter Beard, illustrator for Mark Twain and a founding father of the Boy Scouts of America.

Carel and Abraham Allard in the Court of Momus

- August 6, 2013 in Curator's Choice, dutch, engravings, etchings, Featured, lewd, Louis XIV, momus, politics, Queen Anne, satire, satirical, sex, the netherlands

Daniel Horst, research associate from the Rijksmuseum, explores the controversial collection of satirical etchings published by Abraham Allard in Amsterdam ca. 1708 under the title ‘t Lusthof van Momus.

Fig 1. Title page for ‘t Lust-Hof van Momus. Abraham Allard, 1713, letterpress. Rijksmuseum Amsterdam. RP-P-OB-83.133-1 – Source.

One of the lesser known sub-collections of the Rijksmuseum’s impressive and rapidly growing collection of digitised works is the set of ‘history pictures’ compiled by the Amsterdam art dealer, auctioneer and publisher Frederik Muller (1817-1881). After his death in 1881 the Rijksmuseum was able to acquire this important collection of c. 25.000 prints, drawings and books illustrating the history of the Netherlands, including a remarkable series of prints published in 1713 by the Dutch printmaker Abraham Allard under the title ‘t Lust-Hof van Momus (Fig. 1). In translation the full title reads: The Court of Momus, planted with the principal crops of Mars in Europe and decorated with political emblems of the current war and embellished with elegant historical and satirical poems.

The volume contains 127 prints, all of which pertain to the war between the Dutch Republic and France, part of the War of the Spanish Succession which raged in continental Europe and overseas between 1701 and 1714. Although Abraham Allard (1676-1725) was responsible for publishing the collected prints, a large part of the prints had been previously etched and published separately as broadsides by his father Carel Allard (1648-1709), more or less simultaneously with the depicted contemporary events.

Carel and Abraham Allard were based in Amsterdam and ran a shop between the other publishers and sellers of books and prints in the Kalverstraat near the Dam Square. Carel Allard was one of the major publishers of prints and maps during the Golden Age in the Netherlands and after his death in 1709 his son Abraham took over his father’s business. Both father and son however acquired an ill reputation due to accusations of copyright infringement and the publication of obscene images, a reputation which the prints in this volume would seem to confirm. When Carel Allard in 1699 applied for privilege to publish prints with the States of Holland he was informed that this would only be possible if he submitted his work to examination in advance. The reason for this being that Allard had previously both in Amsterdam and in Frankfurt been accused by the authorities of producing obscene and inflammatory prints.

Typical for the rather crude nature of the satires in The Court of Momus is one of the prints from 1706 (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2. The French and Spanish sawyers of the world. Carel Allard, 1706, etching. Rijksmuseum Amsterdam. RP-P-OB-83.042 – Source.

The print carries the Dutch title De Franse en Spaanse Waereld-Zaagers (The French and Spanish sawyers of the world). The image ridicules the French king Louis XIV and his vassal Philip V of Spain in their attempts to rule the world by sawing the globe in half with a two-handed saw. In 1700 the Spanish king Charles II had died childless and in his will named the French Philip, the duke of Anjou and grandson of Louis XIV, as his successor, thus starting off the War of the Spanish Succession. In 1706, after much fighting in Germany, Italy and the Netherlands, Spain became the main theatre of war. Perched on top of the globe is ‘Maintenon’, this is Françoise d’Aubigné, better known as the Marquise de Maintenon, mistress and second wife of king Louis. As the two kings try to divide the world – the Old World for Louis and the New World for Philip – they discover that the world is tougher than they thought and that their saw is blunt and missing teeth. To assist the kings in their task Maintenon wets the toothless saw by urinating on it, or rather, as the inscription informs us, by opening her sluices and letting her ‘virginal’ waters flow. Although witty, it can easily be imagined that this satire might also have been considered to be in bad taste.

A sub-series of nine images centre on the events of the year 1708 during the War of the Spanish Succession. The first print in this series (Fig. 3) separately published as a broadside is titled Zinnebeeldige Komeet, Wegens de Nieuwe Engelse Prognosticatie, Voor het Jaar 1708; nader verklaard in een Samenspraak tussen Starnar en Warnar (Emblematic comet drawn on the English predictions for the year 1708, explained in a dialogue between Starblind and Confused).

Fig. 3. Emblematic comet drawn on the English predictions for the year 1708. Carel Allard, 1708, etching. Rijksmuseum Amsterdam. RP-P-OB-83.068 – Source.

Typical for this group of prints the image is completely composed of etched text. The kneeling figure is identified as the famous English astrologer Isaac Bickerstaff who is prognosticating the future with his Jacob’s staff or cross-staff. In the rays of the comet or star Bickerstaff predicts the ten plagues which befall the French nation, the modern day Egypt. For example, on the fifteenth of April a severe storm will wreak havoc on the southeastern coast of France and on July 29 king Louis XIV himself will die of a sickness of the stomach. Carel Allard has drawn these predictions literally from a Dutch translation of the English letter Predictions for the Year 1708, the famous attack on Almanac-makers and astrologers written by Jonathan Swift under the pseudonym of Isaac Bickerstaff. In the third line of the Dutch verse on the left Allard has Starblind introduce the prophecy by mistake as a poplecy or a poplexy. In the text on his cross-staff Bickerstaff declares that with these predictions he risks his art’s respect which will cause him to blush in shame if they fail.

Several later prints feature the British Queen Anne in a somewhat risqué manner and focus on the preliminary negotiations for peace with France in 1711 which were part of the main Peace Treaty of Utrecht, signed on April 11th 1713, and which officially brought the War of the Spanish Succession to an end.

In the first case Abraham Allard revised an older seventeenth-century copperplate by Dutch printmaker Pieter Claesz. Soutman (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4. The Liquid Gold of Peace. Pieter Claesz. Soutman and Abraham Allard, 1713, engraving and etching. Rijksmuseum Amsterdam. RP-P-OB-83.133-116 – Source.

The original print showed the mythological Danaë impregnated by Zeus in the form of golden rain. In Allard’s version ‘The Liquid Gold of Peace’ Danaë is identified in the inscription as Queen Anne as she is showered with golden drops or coins and French fleurs-de-lis. In accepting the advances of the French king Louis XIV Anne shows her willingness to accept the French peace proposals. In a final somewhat suggestive note Allard has Anne declare that those who doubt her intentions for peace should ‘smell my pot of roses’.

In another print featuring a mythological theme Allard gives the original image an imaginative and remarkable political twist. The source for this copy is an engraving by Claude Mellan after Simon Vouet and shows Psyche armed with a knife visiting her unknown lover, the sleeping naked Amor. In Allard’s copy Psyche is Queen Anne posed ready to castrate the sleeping pretender (Fig. 5).

Fig. 5. The British Piss cutter and forestaller. Possibly Abraham Allard after Claude Mellan, 1713, etching. Rijksmuseum Amsterdam. RP-P-OB-83.133-124 – Source.

The pun in Allard’s Dutch title De Britse Pis en Pas Afsneister is somewhat lost in the English translation ‘the British Piss cutter and forestaller’. It refers to Anne securing her succession by the Hanoverian dynasty as part of the Utrecht Peace Treaty of 1713. One of the conditions of the treaty required Louis XIV to expel James Francis Edward Stuart, the old pretender, from France and recognise Anne’s German Protestant successors from the House of Hanover. Allard chose or perhaps the copperplate offered him the chance to illustrate this cutting off of the Jacobean claim to the British throne as an act of castration. The inscription further tells us that the unarmed sleep of peace is the best time for such plots, but had he – Amor, the pretender – one arrow left, he would swiftly fell the peace.

Later writers have either largely ignored the Allards’ political satires or dismissed them as vulgar and valueless. Now this judgment seems too harsh. The examples from the Lust-hof van Momus discussed above demonstrate that Carel and Abraham Allard were capable of both creating original and amusing images as well as ingeniously adapting existing ideologically neutral prints into novel and unique political satires, works of art in their own right.

Daniel Horst was born in the United States in 1958. He studied art history at the University of Amsterdam and received his doctorate in 2000 at the Free University Amsterdam for a dissertation about printmaking and propaganda during the Dutch Revolt. He publishes regularly on religious and political prints from the sixteenth and later centuries. He has been a research associate at the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam since 2006.

Over the last six years the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has invested in the cataloguing and digitalization of its c. 800.000 prints, drawings and photographs. More and more of these objects are continually being made available on their website in high-resolution images which are free to download and use. Visit their website to begin exploring.

This post is part of our Curator’s Choice series, where each month we shall feature a special post from a curator about a work or group of works in one of their “open” digital collections. Learn more here.

See this post in all its full page width glory over at The Public Domain Review.