olihawkins

Weeknotes: Week 40, 2020

04 Oct 2020 13:04 GMT

I had a busy week, despite taking two days off. It was exciting but also a bit stressful.

Coronavirus restrictions map

On Wednesday, we launched our new interactive map of coronavirus restrictions. This was the project I mentioned I was working on last week.

The map shows a schematic representation of the coronavirus restrictions that apply in different parts of the UK. You can click on an area to see a summary of the local and national restrictions in force, and find a link to official guidance.

A screenshot of the interactive map showing coronavirus restrictions. The screenshot shows the map zoomed in on North Wales and the North West of England, with information about Denbighshire displayed in a popup.

The launch went really well. Jenny's tweet introducing the map got a big response and was shared by a number of MPs and journalists. I think the map has been successful largely because it is a collaboration between people with different specialisms.

Jenny and Dan are policy specialists; they classify the restrictions in each area using a simple taxonomy and enter them in a data file. Carl is our mapping specialist; he creates custom boundaries for the areas under restrictions and combines it with the data that Jenny and Dan produce. I take the boundary layer that Carl produces and map it with JavaScript and Leaflet.

This division of responsibilities makes it easier to update the map, which is going to be important as we respond to changes in the coming weeks.

The response to the map was interesting. We got a lot of positive feedback and also a few feature requests. People asked for things like a postcode lookup, layers showing the boundaries for other geographies, and an API for the data.

Those are all potentially worthwhile features to add, but there are reasons that we are unlikely to add many of them. A product like this is journalistic in nature: it's time-bound and contingent on events. Publishing the map already involves a commitment to maintain its current feature set and adding features only adds to that burden.

The Library has a well-earned reputation for the quality of its research, but what is less obvious from the outside is how efficient it is. The researchers who publish the briefing material that you see online also spend a good part of their time answering deadlined requests for information and analysis from Members, and are often working on internal projects for the wider organisation as well.

When we publish an online tool like this, we know that we will need to maintain it alongside everything else we are doing, so we have to decide where best to focus our limited resources. For example, Matthew Somerville already maintains a terrific postcode lookup tool for coronavirus restrictions, and there is no point us reproducing his work. What was missing when we started was a map.

There is also the question of what tools we have readily available. Can we take an idea forward quickly, given the immediately available resources? Anything that involves arranging new digital infrastructure takes time, and that constrains our options on projects where timeliness matters.

The unexpected level of interest in this project has raised questions about whether we have all the tools we need to do this kind of work effectively in future. I think we may need to make some long-term changes to our digital capability so that we have more options next time we tackle a similar problem.

So just because we haven't done a particular thing in this case does not mean we wouldn't ever do it. It depends on the time and resources available, and where we think we can add the most value.