How the House of Commons made it harder to work out how much MPs have cost: by using PDFs

At last the slowly-grinding gears of the UK’s stunted Freedom Of Information Act (which isn’t a patch on the American one) means we can find out how much our MPs are costing us. The report – in, I warn you, PDF format – is here.

PDF? Why not in Excel spreadsheets, or at least have those as an alternative (or even offer CSV or tab-separated format), since it’s obvious that every journalist and interested constituent is going to want to find out how much their MP is charging for transport and so on? (A sidenote: the car rate of 57p per mile is actually slightly *below* what the AA reckons it costs to run a car, which it puts at 58p per mile upwards.)

But no, PDFs it is, which has meant a fair amount of pain for those trying to work out how to squirt the PDF contents into a spreadsheet, sum the expenses per MP (an oddly missing total, that) and also regex the names from lastname, firstname into firstname lastname (party). Quite a challenge for the average hack more used to asking “Are you going to resign, Minister?”

Still, at least the PDFs weren’t copy-protected. Though given the outcry this is all sure to generate you wonder if next time…


  1. I don’t like pdf, or Adobe Reader, either; not least because the help file tells you how to do things (edit comments) that the Reader doesn’t support — try finding Comments on the Document menu.

    But I hope you wouldn’t recommend xls (MS Excel) format, because that can contain macros (same like Word). Not enough people seem to know about rtf (Rich Text Format) which is much safer, though not omni-functional.

    Which reminds me that I suspect Adobe of planting at least one executable (PowerReg.exe, see in my StartMenu/Programs/Startup folder, probably when I tried Adobe Photoshop Album 2.0 Starter Edition in a moment of weakness. This bit of spyware doesn’t seem to be very well known, judging by the results of Googling for it.

  2. OK, fair point about Excel and macros. I guess the most flexible format would be tab-separated fields, as then the Excel jockeys *and* the database jockeys could squirt the files in and chew them over.

    Always assuming there weren’t any evil encoded SQL terms.. it’s not just Microsoft that suffers from the attention of evildoers. (Read up about SQL injection some time. It’s quite frightening what a badly-designed interface will let the maliicious do to a database.)

    Any more info on powerreg.exe from illustrious passers-by?

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