Understanding what makes an area different

In the first year of Public Square, we’re working with a small set of councils to pilot approaches to increasing  citizen participation in democracy, with the hope that the lessons learned will be useful in building a wider understanding of the barriers and opportunities in the field as a whole. 

One thing we need to understand about our pilot areas is to what extent lessons drawn from them can be applied to the rest of the country. Given this, we extended the Explorer minisite we use to analyse demographics of mySociety services to cover data for local authorities. You can learn more about this site in our blog posts about how we use it for mySociety services

This allowed us not only to get a quick picture of the features of an area (such as how it rated on different scales of deprivation) but to understand at a glance how it differs from other areas. Bars are coloured green when a chi-square test showed that a particular council has a higher value than would be expected for the ‘average’ council, and coloured red when the value is smaller. When the bar is grey, it shows there was not a statistically significant difference between the authority and the country as a whole. 

For instance, looking at Croydon (my home town), we can see that not only is the population growing, but that it is growing at a slightly higher rate to the country as a whole. The borough generally has more younger and working age people than the country as a whole — with the exception of the 20-29 bracket. 

Examining the individual domains of the Index of Multiple Deprivation, we can see Croydon’s has an atypical number of deprived areas on a few metrics, with areas with a  high crime score and expensive housing. However, switching the comparison just to look at London Boroughs, most of these are no longer exceptional. This reflects the importance of deciding at what level you’re trying to examine an authority.

We used this framework as a jumping off point to ask questions about what makes areas different and understand where an area did and didn’t reflect the country as a whole. There’s not a lot of documentation and several councils have now merged, so it is technically out of date —  but if you’re interested you can explore the data at: https://research.mysociety.org/sites/explorer/la/

For similar projects, see imactivate’s Diversity Explorer, or Owen Boswarva’s tool for comparing age distributions of local authority areas.