Hansard at Huddersfield: Improving democracy through technology

As the results of two surprising votes play out in the UK and US, the importance of the voting public getting access to the right information is more clear than ever. In this blog, Fransina de Jager from the University of Huddersfield tells us how the Hansard at Huddersfield project is helping people more easily access unbiased records from parliament.

Most of us can’t experience political debates first-hand by attending parliament daily. We may wish to consume political news uncoloured by the media, but often all we realistically have access to is collective and journalistic opinion on news websites and social media.

For example, the closest we may feel we can come to understanding the Windrush generation debate is through diverging opinions on Twitter. We have to rely on the BBC for updates about Brexit or parliamentary approval of air strikes in Syria. Or worse, we might read fake political news shared by our friends when we check our Facebook timeline.

What was really said in parliament often remains a mystery to us. How parliament dealt with this or that topic remains obscure. Yet, what many don’t realise is that all of us have access to written records of parliamentary debate via the internet.

In the UK, the record of parliamentary debate is known as ‘Hansard’: a highly robust resource of near-verbatim reports of all that is said in UK parliament – both in the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

Hansard has been published since the 17th century in paper form and in recent years a scanned database of the years 1803-2003, known as ‘Historic Hansard’, was made available online. More recent material of ongoing parliamentary business is also available in a different format.

Who can benefit from Hansard?

Nearly everyone, actually. Those wishing to know about outcomes of parliamentary debate, or the workings of government. Academics studying the language of governance, or historical changes in the concerns of the UK parliament. Pressure groups with concerns about global warming. Think tanks passionate about the role of religion in society. UK citizens worried about the protection of their online data. Twitter-users wishing to fact-check their followers’ tweet about the government’s view on the Iran Nuclear Deal.Capture

An accessible and easily searchable Hansard is rudimentary to a fully functioning representative democracy built on public engagement.

Hansard clearly has the potential to be an important resource for many. But sadly, using it is not as easy as just Googling it. Access to specific debates stored in Hansard is unfortunately rather inflexible. Besides, arguably only those who know more about the internal workings of parliament or have better computer skills than most can make sense of the search results.

Many of us who have attempted to use Hansard have been left frustrated by the difficulty of extracting just the data we needed from all the millions of words. If Hansard is vital to democracy, shouldn’t its access be democratic too?

As researchers at the University at Huddersfield, we recognised this, and proposed a project to improve the Hansard resource with better search functions. The Arts and Humanities Research Council funded the year-long project, which kicked off in March 2018. By March 2019, we hope to present the beginnings of what will eventually be a responsive and helpful tool, enabling anyone wishing to use Hansard for their benefit. Initially, the project will cover the historic Hansard database from 1803 to 2005, but the aim is to bring it right up-to-date by adding more recent data.

Not just its search features, but the provision of visualisations for parliamentary data will appeal to many potential users. But we do not want to dictate which aspects of the Hansard material will be most readily available through our website, so we have developed a more inclusive process to develop it.

Academic research centres, pressure groups, think tanks, political parties and newspapers have all been contacted to be partners in this project. The first few connections with end-users have been made, and we look forward to connecting many others interested in voicing how they wish to benefit from our resource. We therefore welcome anyone who may be interested in using Hansard in the future to contribute to the Hansard at Huddersfield project (you can contact us at hansard@hud.ac.uk)

By this process we will be able to provide a highly usable resource for professional users and the public. A resource that is uncoloured by the media, easily searchable, and with clearly visualised data. We dare to hope that our resource will, in some modest way, enhance public engagement with democracy.

Fransina De Jager provides admin support for the Hansard at Huddersfield which is led by Professor Lesley Jeffries as well as Professor Marc Alexander and Dr Alexander von Lünen, with programming support from Dr. Hugo Sanjurjo-González. For more on the Hansard at Huddersfield follow them on twitter on @HansardHuds


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