2020 - Week 18

So then, another week down. Or at least we think it is. With the steady drip of time distinguished only by the bits when you’re sober, the bits when you’re drunk and the bits when you’re asleep, it’s somewhat difficult to tell. Nevertheless, we press on. If only because losing focus risks an afternoon nap, which has the potential to rip a major hole in the space-time continuum.

Little in the way of procedure modelling and mapping progress has been made this week. This is mostly because our team of crack librarians have been scratching their heads about how to index the flurry of new procedures emerging from our half virtual Parliament. The Commons have adopted a hybrid model, determining some proceedings to be Hybrid Scrutiny and others Hybrid Substantive. Commons Hansard indicates that Hybrid proceedings are underway at the point of their commencement, and adds a V alongside the name of a Member participating virtually at the point at which their first contibution is made. The Lords meanwhile are currently fully virtual, and this is indicated at the start of such proceedings rather than at contribution level. There’s no structured data yet though. So the librarians spent the week discussing what to tag and how. They looked at the language - what’s the official nomenclature and what are people actually saying. They talked to procedural and Hansard colleagues, and to their research colleagues in the Library. They investigated the shape of the data coming from the Hansards, and poked at their own computers to discover what the software lets them do in bulk and what can only be done by hand. They navigated carefully around inadvertent slights that might arise from the use of labels such as “Member virtually participating”. They thought about future research needs, and reflected on how Parliament’s procedural response to COVID-19 might be an evolution and not time - or virus - limted. They to-ed and then fro-ed between indexing for those physically present - which would have been less work but not historically compatible - or indexing for those dialling in. Eventually they settled on tagging at a procedural or event level and tagging every single virtual contribution, both in the Lords and the Commons. Manuals have been updated, a team Q&A has been held, and new ways of working established. For now. They’re taking a breather and await remote voting with interest. Top work Claire, Liz, Anya and Jayne.

Outside chamber business, our librarians were also faced with a new type of question in the House of Lords, where topical questions have been introduced. Which, obviously, is not the same as a topical question in the House of Commons. Topical questions in the Commons are for oral answer and in the main have no substantive content, tabled to allow a follow up substantive question during question time. Topical questions in the Lords are for written answer, and are necessarily substantive. They seem to be similar to named day questions in the Commons. Although the date for answer flowing through the system does not currently indicate this. We do sometimes wonder why new words for new types of things are rarely chosen. But short of buying a thesaurus, we are where we are. We can confidently state that changes to the question and answer model should be along shortly. Meanwhile the librarians are keeping their eyes peeled for the T at the end of the question text and adding a tag.

We’ve already noted that little progress has been made on the procedure maps over the last few weeks. It would be remiss to not also note that this week our inboxes were blessed with a communication from Mr Evans, in answer to a rather niche question on calculating scrutiny periods when one House sits over two days and the other does not. As ever with Paul’s emails, it will take four people at least a couple of hours to parse the reply. A response will follow shortly. We’re not being rude Paul, we’re just not that bright. We promise to be the best students we can be at your upcoming session on the management of Parliamentary time.

In the absence of librarians, Robert and Michael occupied themselves with some prototyping of a scrutiny period calculator. As has been repeated ad nauseam, five of the six procedures we support have scrutiny period clocks. And different procedures count days differently, day counts can differ per work package and the Houses might sit on different days. So knowing that something was laid - or occasionally made - and that that kicked off a clock, and that the clock counts these type of days, and the Houses sat then, and that this many days are set out in statute … well, it requires a great many fingers to calculate when the egg timer of scrutiny runs dry of sand. Currently the busy fingers are attached to Journal Office Jane who compiles and distributes a Word table of start and end date mappings. Any change in sitting days requires a recalculation and the results are currently entered into both the Statutory instrument service and Treaty tracker by hand. This amounts to quite a lot of quite tedious work. Now, we are not by nature uncritical of computers. The computers have a tendency to whine and grumble for reasons we find difficult to understand. But when it comes to looping through something and incrementing a count there are few tools better suited. There’s been a long-term goal to capture the logic that underpins these calculations and put that inside in a computer. And luckily Jane has recently mailed Librarian Jayne with a full and frank explanation of the maths required. But we still lack a reliable source of sitting days and adjournments and prorogation and dissolution periods. So Monday kicked off with a Skype call between Jayne, Robert and Michael. Or possibly a Teams call. Or Zoom. One of those. With their newly honed screen sharing capabilities, they managed to make a first pass at a domain model which rapidly turned into a database schema. Robert and Michael then busied themselves polishing up their rather dusty Ruby and turning the pixel portrait into a database of parliament periods, dissolution periods, sessions, prorogation periods, sitting days, adjournment days and so on. They’ve imported the parliament period spreadsheet which Librarian Ned assembled from back issues of the London Gazette. And Jayne has started on a second spreadsheet of sessions. They’ve also created a set of public Google calendars into which they intend to add sitting and non-sitting days for both Houses. With only very mild swearing, a lot of Googling and much hitting of things with their computational spanners, they finally managed to pull sitting and non-sitting days out of the Google calendars and slurp them into their database. If things go to plan next week, they’ll hopefully get some accurate sitting day data and set about building a new version of the egg timer. But this time with code, not fingers.

Elsewhere, comment editing continued as comment editing always does. Robert and Michael have chiselled away at the formal body model in the hope of extracting a diamond from the dust. A new version is published - if anyone reading has a passing interest in committees, please do take a look and let them know what they’ve got wrong this time. We’re possibly looking at you here, Paul.

Anya and Michael also fired up Zoom to attend a most enjoyable, informative and technical glitch free Study of Parliament Group seminar on how different legislatures are adapting technically and procedurally to the plague. It was especially lovely to see Cristina and Martyn’s faces. Though hopefully at some point pixels will be replaced by pub.

Yet more telephony happened on Wednesday with Librarians Anya and Liz and computational expert Michael chatting to more expert computational expert James about planned changes to the History of Parliament Trust application hosting the Rush data. Plans were made and work is underway. Michael has also shared the Rush data with a research group in Durham. Always nice to have interesting data available to be shared.

Late breaking Friday saw an email from Tom of the ParlRules project. They’ve just published a new version of their House of Commons public Standing Order data, this time organised around whole Standing Orders, rather than the more disaggregated level of sub-articles. Which should make Robert and Michael’s life much easier. They intend to grab the data next week and wrap it into the website they cobbled together out of the old data. Unless their egg timer project overruns and they run out of time.