Democracy month notes: February

Previously: January!

Gaza ceasefire blog post

I wrote a blog post about the Gaza Ceasefire opposition day votes – especially focusing on how there ended up being no recorded votes. 

This is the kind of responsive work we’d like to do more of. We don’t need to duplicating every explainer out there, but we want to be able to better articulate “this is how Parliament works, but there’s something wrong with that” when there’s currently something confusing/going wrong in the news. 

Asking for money to do good things

Alice, Julia and I have been putting together a more structured version of the idea I talk about at the bottom of this blog post about our new spreadsheet of the register of interests — using crowdsourcing to create good, understandable summaries of MPs interests. Will let you know how that goes. 

Something we’d like to get better at is being more public when these applications for funding do not work out (spoiler: this happens a lot!). There’s a lot of work and creativity that goes into our ambitions for TheyWorkForYou, and ideally these wouldn’t just be locked away in various virtual desk drawers. 

Oflog consultation

Julia worked with our friends at the Centre for Public Data on a joint response to an Office for Local Government (OFLOG) consultation – read more about that

This is a continuation of our work around public data fragmentation

Small API updates

Matthew has added Parliament’s unique identifier to the response to the ‘getMPInfo’ API call, making it easier to jump from our data to query the Parliament API.

Server upgrades

Sam and Matthew have been upgrading the servers that run TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem.

We need to do this periodically for security reasons: the organisations that distribute the server software (and other packages we depend on, like those that distribute the programming languages) only provide security and bug fixes for a certain period, after which they only provide it for newer versions. 

Running software on the web — where there are *constantly* bad people testing for weaknesses — means taking this seriously. But upgrading the lower levels of the “stack” often means small changes further up where features we use have been deprecated and replaced with other approaches. Some of this work is running just to stay in the same place, but it does also enable us to adopt new approaches in how we code and the packages we use. 

This is one of the massive benefits of the same organisation running TheyWorkForYou AND WhatDoTheyKnow AND FixMyStreet AND (many more) – we have excellent people thinking hard about our technical infrastructure across all our work. 

Voting summary update

We’ve done some of the trickiest technical work required to enable the voting summary update we’re planning.

We’ve moved TheyWorkForYou from pointing at the Public Whip website, where it used to get voting summary calculations, to an instance of a new,experimental “twfy-votes” platform. This is doing the work Public Whip was originally doing, but also taking over the party comparison calculations that were being done in TheyWorkForYou itself previously. 

TheyWorkForYou has become simpler, and more of the relevant code is now in the same place. We’re not yet completely independent of the Public Whip because twfy-votes currently uses the database dump to populate itself — but soon we’ll be able to move that to an export from TheyWorkForYou’s own database. 

The goal in this set of changes is to move from this:

Diagram showing the flow of data from the Hansard XML, through Parlparse, into both TheyWorkForYou and the PublicWhip - with that then reentering theyworkforyou and additional calculations being done to calculate voting summaries

To this:

Diagram showing the different flow of data from the Hansard XML - through ParlParse to TheyWorkForYou, and a feedback look between TWFY and TWFY-VOTES

Which is… still a lot of boxes and arrows, but is better than it was. This could in principle then be simplified even further, but this brings the whole process under our control and simplifies some of the back and forth steps. 

Currently, all this work should have resulted in almost no visible changes to the site. But we now can flip a switch and it will switch the underlying algorithm used from the one in the Public Whip to the new (simplified) approach.  One of the motivations behind this shift is to be fully in control of that algorithm (which is effectively a number-based editorial policy). 

One of the things I’ve been doing this month is running the analysis to clearly map what exactly the public effect of this will be. Broadly, most things stay the same, which is good because we don’t want the headline messages to be hugely affected by different methodologies behind the scenes – At the same time we’ll end up with something that is easier to explain. 

The final stage before full release is a set of less technical changes, consolidating the voting summary information on one page, and adding a rewritten page describing both how Parliamentary voting works in different places across the UK, and what our approach is in the data we publish. Making good progress on these, and hope to have this project completed soon. 

That’s all for now

As ever, if you’re the kind of person who reads to the end of these (I’m going to assume a generally nice person who is also a fan our our work) – donations are welcome. But also get in touch if you’ve got something to chat with us about!

Header image: Photo by yasin hemmati on Unsplash