Tory MP Robert Key gave deceptively simple instructions to Cravenplan Computers about the kind of Web site he wanted, writes Robert Dunt. All he said to the Salisbury-based Web designer was that he wanted the "best Web site in Westminster". Six months after this ambitious brief, Key's site was launched on 29 September.
It boasts various features including an online voting system and a search facility allowing constituents access to specific local government information.
Cravenplan's Web sales executive, Stuart Gould, says, "Key was not only looking for a Web site for himself and the Conservative Party, but for something that would also assist his constituents."
The first thing the designers did to try to get their heads around the problem was to look at the Web sites of other MPs and of the US presidential candidates. The company took ideas from the slick US sites, but noted things they didn't want to copy from UK ones.
Some MPs' sites had a "corny" attitude, says Gould, "which we didn't want to be associated with as our sites are designed to be professional".
One of the major features is the online voting system. Gould says it is presently about fox hunting but will be changed every month.
And in order to guarantee that the votes logged are not engineered by people voting more than once, Cravenplan programmed the site so that each computer logging on could only vote once. This is not the only security issue to be examined. Gould says it had to be careful not to put any information on the site that was too personal about Key as he is the shadow defence minister and could become a target for certain groups.
But one of the major challenges Cravenplan faced was setting up part of the site as a special constituent section which people could only access using their postcode. "We tried various avenues but people were charging silly money to do it. In the end we put together something ourselves," says Gould.
Another highlight of the site, he says, is the local government information section. If a constituent has a blocked drain, for example, they can find out if this would be dealt with by the district or county council - then the Web site goes on to offer telephone numbers of the councillors who are responsible for that area of service.
Surprisingly, one of the other main challenges of the site had nothing to do with complicated technology. "Getting the information on the site right was one of the main challenges as it would be ridiculed otherwise."
Key says, "My site will make me easily accessible and accountable to my constituents. It's different because it's not just about politics. I'm a real person with ordinary views on life and some of these I share on the site, such as my love for Wiltshire, music and cooking."
This was first published in October 2000