Last Tuesday, the Data and Search team held our second public event at Newspeak House. At the first outing, Dan Barrett gave a talk about our work and the various problems we're trying to fix. For the second event we decided on a change of format.
By attending a series of events from Citizen Beta at Newspeak to the Study of Parliament Group conference in Oxford, it's clear to us that there's lots of communities working in and around Parliamentary data. These communities range from librarians and statisticians to academics, historians, technologists, designers and activists.
Rather than attempting to "create a community" around Parliamentary data (when communities already exist quite happily without our help) we decided to build bridges between existing communities. Given the variety of shared interests, we'd like to explore how Parliamentary statisticians can help technologists to help academics to help historians and so on.
For this event, we invited a variety of speakers to talk about their work in or around the edges of Parliament, democracy and data.
What we talked about
Dan kicked off the evening by giving a short introduction to the Data and Search team and what we're currently up to.
Next up was Tony Hirst, usually of the Open University but joining PDS for a day a week. He's going to be exploring how data gets used in libraries and how we might tap into the expertise around us.
His talk was a short history of playing with Parliamentary data from visualisations of voting patterns to more recent experiments with turning Alexa into a Parliamentary agent.
Next up was Michelle Isme from the Government Digital Service. She spoke about their work on Registers to build authoritative lists of trusted reference data that anyone is free to use and build upon. It's exciting from our perspective because we're already managing data that could be managed elsewhere with less duplication of effort and fewer mistakes.
Oli Hawkins joined us from the Commons Library. He opened his talk by asking, 'What is Parliamentary data?' Given the variety of MPs' questions the library needs to answer, Parliamentary data isn't confined to data about Parliament. If you're working with any kind of data related to civil society you're probably helping with 'Parliamentary data'.
Oil went on to talk about some of the work he's done with visualising and mapping data from mapping ethnic separation across constituencies to the more recent, exploring the impact of boundary changes.
Next up was Megan Lucero from The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ). She spoke (without slides) about her work in data journalism. She broke the doping scandal in athletics for the Sunday Times and is now setting up and leading the bureau's data journalism team.
She pointed out that the basics of data journalism are not new and there's a long tradition of journalists questioning data to get stories. What is new is the scale of the data and the tools available to work with it. She now works with statisticians and technologists to dig into data and spot patterns.
Her final point was striking. Power is being devolved locally at the same time as regional and local journalism is suffering. Your local newspaper might not have the expertise or tools to process data to look for stories that hold local democracy to account. But organisations like TBIJ can help to plug that gap.
Following Megan, there was a change of tone as James Smith talked about open politics in the UK and beyond. He gave an introduction to Something New, a political party he helps to run. Their open manifesto states that anyone with an internet connection can contribute. He also talked about how politics and political parties might adapt to a networked world. His 'open is a political statement' was probably the most memorable slide of the night.
Finally, Steve Goodrich from Transparency International UK spoke about using data to monitor your MP's performance. He talked about how they consult the code of conduct to see what MPs are allowed to do, the numerology data on They Work for You and the Register of Financial Interests to cross-reference with speaking and voting patterns.
He also made a plea for some of the data currently trapped in HTML and PDFs to be available in a more useful format. He talked about some of the entity extraction work that had to happen to make the Register of Financial Interests into a useable source of data. He left us with a shopping list of requests for data: better information on how much MPs are earning outside Parliament, who they work with, who they're being lobbied by and who they're meeting, alongside more information on All Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs).
All in all, a pretty good evening. Great talks, average beer and some interesting conversations afterwards.
In the future
We'd like to keep doing this and to keep mixing up and mingling the librarians and statisticians and technologists and academics and historians.
If you're interested in coming along to future events we've created a mailing list for Parliamentary data where we'll post about any future meetups. If you'd like to give a talk, hear about a particular subject or if you have a question or request for Parliamentary data, please sign up to the mailing list.