Today we made beta.parliament.uk publicly available for the first time. This is our first public step towards a new website for Parliament and the beginning of a long series of frequent releases.
Sarah, our Website Operations Engineer, removed the IP whitelist restriction this morning. This function allowed us to release a private beta of the website earlier this year. We spent that time gathering feedback.
Now, with the restriction lifted, anyone can access the beta website. Thanks to everyone who has contributed to the development, provided feedback and given their expert advice so far.
The first service is ‘Members information’. Our research highlighted how locating information about members is an important task for our users. As such, we prioritised developing this area.
The service delivers a single, permanent* page for every Member of Parliament and contextualises their membership of a House, their constituency, or their party or group. These new member pages are not as feature rich as the current website and so it won't be an immediate replacement, but they will act as a strong foundation on which we can build new features and tools.
We'll be prioritising features so that we meet the user needs we've identified.
A data-driven approach
Parliament's role involves scrutinising the Government, making and changing legislation and debating the issues of the day. It holds itself to account by documenting these processes. Increasingly, we make this information available online. That’s a lot of material to publish. In order for the new website to be sustainable and allow for maximum transparency, we’re following a data-driven approach. This means we're moving away from a one-size-fits-all content management system and building a dynamic website on top of structured data.
Our Data and Search team colleagues are doing the heavy lifting of structuring this complex information. The Data and Search team are also building a new Data Service and the beta website will be the first client of its APIs.
The data has its limits
The data that underpins Members information is mostly sourced from a single system (the third of its kind) that has been in use since 2013. The data is comprehensive for this current and the last Parliament but begins to thin out as you go further back in time.
There are also a few issues with the accuracy of the information where the focus has been on its use in internal systems that help Parliament run. Members names and titles have caused display issues where individuals are more commonly known by a different name or have acquired a title through their position at Parliament. Even the use of the phrase ‘MP’ or ‘Lord’ isn't straightforward when it applies to the Speaker or a Bishop. We also see that constituencies appear inconsistent where a separate constituency has been created (for example, as a result of a boundary review) yet the name remains the same.
We can resolve all these issues through additional data modelling, administering existing data and updating how we present that information. A goal of the beta website is to make the boundaries of our data explicit so that we can visualise the issues, decide what actions we will take and work towards describing our output better. We intend, as other designers of digital services have said, to 'do the hard work to make it simple'.
The current website will not disappear overnight
The current website has been in existence for eight years. The features of the current website were not released in one night, but were added over time. The new beta website will sit alongside the current website as we develop new features and work on whole new areas. We will replace parts of the current website with the beta only when the level of features and breadth of sections starts to feel like a comprehensive service.
Over the next few weeks you will see us iterate the features on 'Members information'. This will be in response to a series of usability tests we've carried out with constituents of the devolved administrations (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) as well as tests carried out by the Digital Accessibility Centre. We will also improve the visual design and look to publicly test our second service - Search.
We want your feedback
The beta website will see us release our services early with a plan to update them often. We want to be able to gather feedback, help the team learn and make improvements to our services where it counts. So, we need your feedback.
* Update 28 April 2017 - the page URLs are not yet permanent. This will only be the case when we move from the 'beta' sub domain to the official website. We reserve the right to change the identifiers of things (visible in the URL) up until this point.
Take a look around beta.parliament.uk and let us know what you think by clicking on 'give feedback' link on the website, or by leaving a comment below.