Ernest Marples: An elegy

5 October 2009

Ernest Marples is dead and I am pissed off.

I refer, of course, not to the erstwhile postmaster general and transport minister who retired to the grave in 1978 but to the eponymous website which has been crushed beneath the Royal Mail’s clunking fist.

Ernest, you did one thing and you did it brilliantly. You gave programmers a gizmo that converted postcodes into geographical locations. Such an unglamorous task formed the backbone of websites that provided public benefit and private delight in equal measure.

By powering Planning Alerts you let thousands get news of local planning applications where they wanted it – in their inboxes – rather than having to rummage around in the darkest reaches of their councils’ websites.

In a time of high unemployment and higher uncertainty, you gave people a fast and easy way to find vacancies near them through Jobcentre Pro Plus without having to suffer the frustrations and indignities of the Jobcentre “adviser” and the official government website.

And as the cornerstone of The Straight Choice you helped us to create a public library of election leaflets that let us judge for ourselves whether our politicians’ promises were worth the paper they were written on.

You inspired dozens of developers to create civic projects that without you would have been unthinkable and now without you may well be impossible.

At a time when joined-up government was either a breathless aspiration or an oxymoronic joke, you helped to bond parts of government that no council, ministry or quango could reach.

Above all, Ernest, you provided a glimpse of what we the people could do with free access to the data that we had paid to create and are now expected to pay for again to use.

For all this you asked for neither recognition nor recompense but just the chance to carry on doing what you loved. A chance which you were so ruthlessly and shamelessly denied.

Farewell, Ernest. You were one of us and now without you we are less.