1. Got a list of postcodes and need to match them to administrative areas?

    It’s a more common problem than you might think: given a list of postcodes, how can you match them to the administrative and electoral areas, such as wards or constituencies, that they sit within?

    MapIt’s data mapping tool gives a quick, easy and cheap solution: just upload your spreadsheet of postcodes, tell it which type of area you want them matched to, and the data is returned to you  — complete with a new column containing the information you need.

    The tool can match your postcodes to every type of data that MapIt offers in its API, including council areas, Westminster constituencies, parish wards and even NHS Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs).

    If that doesn’t sound like something you can imagine being useful, let’s look at a few hypothetical use cases (and if you have an actual case that you’d like to tell us about, please do let us know  — we’re always keen to hear how our tools are being used).

    Organisations, charities and campaigns sometimes need to match postcodes to administrative areas

    Membership organisations, charities and campaigns usually collect the addresses of supporters, but don’t commonly ask them who their MP is (even if they did ask, most people in the UK don’t actually know the name of their MP).

    But when a campaign asks followers to contact their MPs, it’s helpful to be able to suggest an angle based on whether the MP is known to be sympathetic to their cause, or not — indeed, there’s arguably no point in contacting MPs who are already known to be firmly on board.

    So: input a spreadsheet of supporters’ postcodes, and get them matched to the associated Westminster constituencies.

    For more advanced usages, organisations might match the MapIt tool’s output of postcodes with other datasets to discover the answers to questions like:

    • Which members in a disability group have fewest GPs in their area, and might be finding it difficult to get help for their condition?
    • Which supporters of a transport charity live in regions less served by public transport, and would be likely to take action to campaign for improved bus and train services?
    • Which people affiliated to an ecological organisation live in predominantly rural areas and could help with a wildlife count?

    Researchers sometimes need to match postcodes to administrative areas

    Researchers often need to correlate people, institutions or locations with the boundaries they fall within.

    They might have a list of postcodes for, say, underperforming schools, and want to find out whether they are clustered within authorities that have similar characteristics, like cuts to their funding or an administration that has a political majority one way or the other.

    Teamed with other datasets, MapIt can help towards answering important questions like the number of people each CCG serves, how unemployment rates vary in different European regions, or average house prices within parliamentary constituencies.

    Journalists sometimes need to match postcodes to administrative areas

    Investigative or data journalists may obtain long spreadsheets full of postcodes in the course of their work, perhaps as a result of having submitted Freedom of Information requests to one or more authorities.

    Perhaps they have the address of every university in the country, and there’s an election coming up — during the summer holidays. Knowing that students will mostly be in their home constituencies, they might be able to make informed predictions about how votes in the university towns will be affected.

    Or let’s say that a journalist has gathered, from local councils, an address for every library scheduled to close. This could be compared with another dataset — perhaps literacy or crime rates — to draw conclusions over what impact the closures would have.

    Part of a wider service

    The MapIt machine


    The one-off data mapping tool is just one service from mySociety’s MapIt, which is best known for its API.

    This provides an ongoing service, typically for those running websites that ask users to input geographical points such as postcodes or lat/longs, and return tailored results depending on the boundaries those points fall within.

    MapIt powers most mySociety sites, for example:

    • When you drop a pin on the map while using FixMyStreet, MapIt provides the site with the administrative boundaries it falls within, so that the site can then match your report with the authority responsible for fixing it.
    • When you type your postcode into WriteToThem, Mapit gives the site the information it needs to to display a list of every representative, from local councillor up to MEP, who represents your area.
    • If you search for your postcode on TheyWorkForYou, MapIt tells the site what your Westminster constituency is and the site matches that to your MP. You can then be taken to their page with a record of how they have voted and everything they’ve said in Parliament.

    Give it a try

    Find out more about MapIt here or have a go at uploading a spreadsheet into the data mapping tool.

    If you’re not sure whether it’s the right tool for your needs, feel free to drop us a line — and, as we said before, if you are already using it to good effect, please do let us know.

    Image: Thor Alvis

  2. Car Comparison Calculator: an update


    It’s always good to know a tool we’ve built is useful, and that certainly seems to be the case with the Car Comparison Calculator we built for the Money Advice Service.

    Forecasts on user numbers for a completely new offering are, let’s be honest, always going to be based on loose estimates at best. During development, we were both working to the basic figure of 160,000 users a year. Well, pop open the champagne and rip off those L-plates, because in just ten weeks since launch, more than 180,000 people have already checked the running costs of the car they’re thinking of buying.

    Almost as pleasing is the news that almost all users see the process through to the end. That might sound like a given, but in all web transactions you can expect to see some ‘drop-off’ as users abandon their path.

    So, all in all, a great start for the Car Comparison Calculator. Try it out for yourself here.

    And if you’d like mySociety to build something digital for you, start here.


    Image: Autohistorian (CC)

  3. Case study: A Car Comparison Calculator

    Bubble Car by Allen WatkinYou’ve seen a bargain second-hand car: it looks sound, and the price is right. All good – but how can you tell what effect the running costs will have on your purse?

    That was the question that sparked our latest project, an online interactive tool for the Money Advice Service. The Car Costs Calculator, built by mySociety, allows you to see outgoings at a glance, and compare one second-hand model against another.

    The client

    Money ASdvice Service logoThe Money Advice Service helps people manage their money. It does this directly through its free and impartial advice service, and by working in partnership with other organisations to help people make the most of their money.

    It is an independent service, set up by government, which proactively offers advice and services to help people with the big financial commitments in their lives.

    The brief

    The proposed tool was to be part of a wider, content-driven campaign about the process of buying a car, the possible pitfalls of doing so, the financial implications, and the best ways to save money.

    The costs of car ownership aren’t always apparent until you’re up and running – and that’s not helpful when you’re browsing the second-hand car ads.

    The Car Costs Calculator gives potential buyers a clearer understanding of exactly what outgoings are associated with each make and model of car.

    Several factors make up the costs of running a car: fuel, servicing and maintenance, vehicle tax, annual insurance, and the likely annual depreciation. Before making the decision to commit to what is, for many people, one of the largest outgoings in their monthly budget, it pays to have a full understanding of all of these costs.

    Car comparison tool by mySociety for MAS

    Click to see bigger

    We needed to build a tool that could present this complex data, simply and clearly. It made sense to model it on the sort of comparison service that we’re all familiar with from online electronics retailers – that way, most users would have an intuitive understanding of how to access the data.

    Our approach

    Before we started work, the Money Advice Service gamely answered all our many questions, allowing us to create a collaborative scoping and feasibility document.

    This, together with clear guidance on the branding and house style, was indicative of what was to come – open communication, with frequent meetings and calls throughout the entire build.

    We worked to our preferred Agile method. This approach allows for the overall build to be divided into small chunks, each of which is presented to, and tested by, the client on a regular basis: feedback can then be incorporated into the next sprint.

    The tool was given plenty of use and testing by the Money Advice Service stakeholders at every stage, and their comments were a valuable resource for our developers.

    We also benefited from the client’s in-depth understanding of their audience. With their help, we drew up user stories, including characteristics and motivations, so that we knew we were all on the same page and could really focus on the tool’s users.

    Car tool - add further info

    Click to see bigger


    While the build went smoothly, we did encounter one issue. It just happened that the Money Advice Service had only recently introduced new styles across its website, and mySociety was the first third-party supplier to use them.

    As it turned out, they weren’t entirely pinned down, meaning that some finished pieces of design needed to be re-done as the project neared completion.

    Remember all that communication we talked about above? This is where it came in really useful, and we got there in the end.

    The outcome

    The Car Cost Calculator launched in July, fitting into the Money Advice Service’s wider campaign on financial advice about buying, selling and running a car.

    Both sides are pleased with this innovative tool that gives buyers such a simple route to the financial information they need to make an informed decision.

    For the Money Advice Service, the project represents what every client would like to see: “low input, high output”. That is to say, for a relatively low overhead, they have provided the UK with an online tool that will make a real difference.

    Try it out

    Whether or not you’re in the market for a second-hand car, it’s still fun to try out – have a go with the tool here.

    Need something similar? We can build it for you.

    Image credit: Allen Watkin (cc)