Living with dragons

In a society filled with Google Maps, MapQuest and other easy access map services, Gregory Marler de

Intense followers of the NMA awards may remember a nomination made last year for OpenStreetMap (OSM). The project, set up four years ago, involves creating a wiki-map of the world that can be modified by anyone who creates an account. Unlike other online and offline map providers, the resulting map is free to copy and use how you like, with no restrictions or fee except ensuring that you credit your changes and link back to OSM.

A free map data source like this is great for small organisations that can't afford the alternatives, but some people still question whether it's useful or required in their simple life. A couple of months after the 2007 NMA awards ceremony I was set to move up north to the beautiful city of Durham. Seeing that only the river and A1 motorway had been mapped in Durham for OSM, I decided to start an experiment.

The experiment was to live without using any maps unless I could copy, publish, and modify them without requiring explicit permission or paying. So to guide me to locations and addresses I could use: a 1948 map that was so old its copyright and usefulness had expired; and I could use OpenStreetMap, that might as well have marked the city 'Here be dragons' because no one had added the streets. To record the stresses and difficulties I experienced I set up a blog, Living with Dragons, so you can follow along and know how I'm doing.

Prior to moving to Durham and starting this experiment, I had spent slightly less than 48 hours there. Going anywhere outside the very centre would require guessing where to go or going with someone who knew. I was invited to houses of new friends but had to ask them to doodle directions from the nearest place I had previously been to.

Along with living without maps, I'm also dedicating some time to building OSM's coverage of Durham. This requires me to walk down every road and footpath I can possibly find, and by the end of it, I'll know Durham very well. But mapping an unknown area is harder than somewhere you're used to. I couldn't systematically divide up areas to map each week. Sometimes I'd map a small area but discover it to be the type of housing that is a warren of short roads and many footpaths/alleyways.

Since October I've mapped the city centre and the area to the east of it. I'm currently working to the North, and what's been done can be seen here. On June the 7th and 8th I'll be arranging a mapping party so you can come along on either or both of the days to learn what to do while helping me out.

Dragon drawing by Joyce Webb

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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