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Will Storm Doris affect turnout in the Stoke-on-Trent and Copeland by-elections?

The Met Office has warned of gale force winds on Thursday. 

Voters in Stoke-on-Trent and Copeland will turn out on Thursday 23 February to cast their vote in two hotly contested by-elections, where the incumbent Labour party is clinging on.

But they may feel less inclined to do so, if the Met Office is correct. It has predicted that Storm Doris will shake the UK on Thursday, with both Stoke-on-Trent and Copeland in the firing line

It's a commonly-held belief that adverse weather can affect the number of voters who make the effort to head to the polls. Ahead of the EU rerendum, the Telegraph ran a news article suggesting that thunder storms on the day could boost the Leave campaign, "which is most likely to benefit from a low turnout". Labour activists will be particularly nervous in Stoke-on-Trent Central, which has the distinction of being the sole constituency in 2015 where the majority of the electorate did not vote.

Even Anthony Howard once said that evening rain before the polls close "has always been a frightening prospect for Labour", as working-class voters would often go to the polls between tea and 10pm.

But does the weather actually have much of an impact? While evidence certainly suggests that it does in the US, a study published by Democratic Audit based on voter turnout in Sweden suggests that, as long as voting is convenient, weather does not affect turnout.

"Previous studies," the authors write, "focused on the United States, a country where the costs associated with voting are high in a comparative perspective". 

In Sweden, where voting is easier  registration is not required and election day is on a weekend – the results are different. "Even when using datasets covering almost 150,000 persons and very detailed rain data, we do not find any meaningful effects of weather conditions" the report says.

Using the same metric of difficulty, voting is "easier" in the UK than America, but more difficult than Sweden. So what happens in the UK?

According to Stephen Fisher, a politics researcher at Oxford University, there is little correlation between good weather and voting patterns. He told the BBC in 2002 that data from the last 15 general elections showed no link.

Even if there was some relation between the weather and turnout, Fisher points out, a higher proportion of people voting by postal ballot would diminish the effect.

There is one caveat, however. "If you had a January snowstorm", says John Curtice from the University of Strathclyde, "it would make a difference but for the most part the weather is mildly inclement at these times of year [when general elections are held]. So you might need to take a brolly with you or you might have sunshine but you won't have a howling gale or snow or serious travel disruption."

That last point is important. While rain might not put people off voting, difficulties getting to the polling station can. So a truly chaotic storm could affect a result.

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland

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Is Google Maps discriminating against people with disabilities?

Its walking routes are not access-friendly.

“I ended up having to be pushed through a main road in London, which was really scary.” Three weeks ago, Mary Bradley went to London to visit her daughter Belinda, who is just finishing her first year at university there. Her other daughter joined them on the trip.

But what was supposed to be an enjoyable weekend with her two children turned into a frustrating ordeal. The apps they were using to find their way around kept sending them on routes that are not wheelchair-friendly, leading to time-consuming and sometimes frightening consequences.

Bradley has been using a wheelchair – when having to go longer distances without a vehicle – for over a year, due to a 45-degree curve in her spine, severe joint facet deterioration in her back, and other conditions.

She lives in Weston-super-Mare in Somerset, and has made the trip up to London to visit her daughter a handful of times. Each visit, they use Google Maps and the transport app Citymapper to find their way around, as neither of them know London particularly well.


Belinda and Mary Bradley. Photo: Belinda Bradley

“It was just horrible,” says Bradley of her most recent trip to the capital. “We’re following the maps, and we go along, then find we are faced with a footbridge, and realise there was no way I was going to get over it, so we had to go back the way we’d come. At one point, we were faced with a strip of narrow pavement the wheelchair couldn’t go down. That was something we found all weekend.”

While Google Maps did highlight accessible Tube stations, they found that once they had alighted to do the rest of the journey to their destination on foot, “it took us three times as long, because the route that it takes us just wasn’t passable”.

They ended up having to try different routes “having no real idea of where were going”.

“It meant that it took so much longer, the girls ended up having to push me for longer, I got more and more embarrassed and frustrated and upset about the whole thing,” Bradley tells me.

At one point, her daughters had to take her down a main road. “Being pushed on a road, especially in London, is scary,” she says. “It was scary for me, it was scary for the girls.”

When they returned home, Belinda, who is a 19-year-old Writing and Theatre student at the University of Roehampton, was so furious at the situation that she started a petition for Google Maps to include wheelchair-friendly routes. It hit over 100,000 signatures in a fortnight. At the time of writing, it has 110,601 petitioners.


Belinda's petition.

Belinda was surprised that Google Maps didn’t have accessible routes. “I know Google Maps so well, [Google]’s such a big company, it has the satellite pictures and everything,” she says. “So I was really surprised because there’s loads of disabled people who must have such an issue.”

The aim of her petition is for Google Maps to generate routes that people using wheelchairs, crutches, walking sticks, or pushing prams will be able to use. “It just says that they’re a little bit ignorant,” is Belinda’s view of the service’s omission. “To me, just to ignore any issues that big needs to be solved; it needs to be addressed almost immediately.”

But she also wants to raise awareness to “make life better in general” for people with disabilities using navigation apps.

Belinda has not received a response from Google or Citymapper, but I understand that Google is aware of the petition and the issue it raises. Google declined to comment and I have contacted Citymapper but have not received a response.

Google Maps does provide information about how accessible its locations are, and also allows users to fill in accessibility features themselves via an amenities checklist for places that are missing that information. But it doesn’t provide accessible walking routes.

“There’s no reason that they couldn’t take it that bit further and include wheelchair accessible routes,” says Matt McCann, the founder of Access Earth, an online service and app that aims to be the Google Maps for people with disabilities. “When I first started Access Earth, I always thought this is something Google should be doing, and I was always surprised they haven’t done it. And that’s the next logical step.”

McCann began crowdsourcing information for Access Earth in 2013, when he booked a hotel in London that was supposed to be wheelchair-friendly – but turned out not to be accessible for his rollator, which he uses due to having cerebral palsy.

Based in Dublin, McCann says Google Maps has often sent him on pedestrian routes down cobbled streets, which are unsuitable for his rollator. “That’s another level of detail; to know whether the footpaths are pedestrian-friendly, but also if they’re wheelchair-friendly as well in terms of the surface,” he notes. “And that was the main problem that I had in my experience [of using walking routes].”

Access Earth, which includes bespoke accessibility information for locations around the world, aims to introduce accessible routes once the project has received enough funding. “The goal is to encompass all aspects of a route and trip,” he says. Other services such as Wheelmap and Euan's Guide also crowdsource information to provide access-friendly maps.

So how long will it take for more established tech companies like Google to clear the obstacles stopping Mary Bradley and millions like her using everyday services to get around?

“You can use them for public transport, to drive, you can use them if you’re an able-bodied person on foot,” she says. “But there are loads of us who are completely excluded now.”

Sign Belinda Bradley’s “Create Wheelchair Friendly Routes on Google Maps" here.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.