2022 - Week 21

You’ve just given me your last standing orders

Our regular reader will be well aware of our adventures in procedural cartography. They’ll also know we are not the type of people to not cite sources. We would never knowingly not cite sources. Which is why, should you peer at many of our maps, you’ll see wee diamond shapes in an assortment of colours indicating where an element of a procedure is set out in legislation. You’ll also see a smattering of yellow circles doing much the same job but for standing orders. We’ve had a long term aim to turn these pixels into data and links. Or linked data if you will. In the case of legislation, this is trivial because god gave us John and John gave us legislation.gov.uk. For standing orders, it’s all somewhat trickier with identity, naming and list positions all confusingly conflated. Whilst a clerk would know exactly what was meant by House of Commons public standing order 14, their predecessor in 1948 would have a very different idea. As might their successor in 2048. What counts for standing order 14 having been standing order 4, 5, 6 and 13 before finally making it as far as 14 in July 2002. For some definition of finally. This time next year, it may well have a different number again. This lack of a persistent identity makes it pretty much impossible to cite persistently. At least whilst Parliament lacks any real version control around such publications.

Luckily, someone - we forget quite who but Martyn might be a likely suspect - introduced us to the ParlRules research team and we discovered they’d done the version control homework for us. At least in terms of House of Commons public standing orders. Tom expended a large part of his PhD years - and one assumes a considerable amount of his eyesight - on documenting the genealogy of such orders, from 1811 to 2019. For which we are enormously grateful. Rad and team were also kind enough to respond to our request to liberally licence the resulting data. Not a job that the University of Oxford appears to make easy. With data downloaded, young Robert and Michael took out their standard issue Ruby on Rails spanners and made a first attempt at a website. Or a browseable information space as they like to call it. Sadly, they lacked the skills to take make that website editable. Which is where boss brarian Bryn comes in, having found a small stash of cash down the back of the Library sofa. Money which came in rather handy when it came to paying James to add user accounts and editability. Which he has now mostly done.

This brings us up to Thursday, when librarians Anya, Jayne and Claire, and computational ‘experts’ young Robert and Michael were joined - in pixels - by Tom, for a demo of James’ shiny new standing order editing application. Basic editability of Houses, business extents, revision, sets, orders, order versions, fragments and fragment versions is now in place. More exciting still, James also demoed the cloning of a revision set including all its order versions and fragment versions. “Having access to such a tool would have saved a year of my PhD,” said Tom. Or words to that effect. You really can’t get a better acceptance criteria than that.

Since the demo, we’ve realised that - and rather late in the day to be honest - if we want to cite sources from our legislative consent motion maps, we’ll also need persistent identifiers for the public standing orders of the three devolved legislatures. So James has been approached to add legislatures to both data and code, and has kindly said yes. Which hopefully means we’ll be both bicameral and unicameral compliant. Our Trello card for the standing orders model has been amended and awaits the attention of young Robert, librarian Ned and Michael. More on the far side of Jubilee weekend we hope.

The keen eyed observer of standing orders - hello again Martyn - may have noticed that the current dataset lacks anything in the way of order titles, sections and section titles. Everything can always be improved.

Citing committee reports

Not content with citable standing orders, librarian Jayne has been fighting the good fight on the committee report front. At some point late last year, House of Commons’ committee report pages underwent something of a refresh. The refresh had the unfortunate side effect of removing anchor links to specific sections. Which meant we could no longer link to the section of a committee report considering a specific statutory instrument, only to the report as a whole. Jayne raised the matter and this week saw the re-addition of fragment identifiers to House of Commons committee reports. Which, on the plus side, means our ability to link to pertinent material is back. And, on the other plus side, it also means we’re considerably less concerned about the migration of House of Lords’ committee reports to the same format. That said, on the negative side, it does mean our crack team of librarians have quite a job on their hands running back over six months worth of reports and fixing links. Poor brarians.

Continuing adventures in procedural cartography

A whole series of meetings saw Jayne and Michael continuing their quest to map the legislative reform order procedure. The core procedure map now comes complete with the logic necessary to determine if such an instrument can be withdrawn. Or not.

With the House of Lords’ procedure determination component now sitting in our out tray, attention has turned to the corresponding component in the Commons. On Wednesday morning, Jayne and Michael were delighted to be joined by BEIS Committee Catherine to compare and contrast the two procedures. Which turned out to be more a matter of comparing, the contrasts being mainly a re-labelling job and coping with the fact that committee scrutiny was once the Regulatory Reform Committee’s remit. Jayne has taken what we learned and a new Commons procedure determination map is now published and ready for checking. Top work, Jayne.

Step depth preparations

Preparation for adding step depths to our procedure model continues ‘at pace’. Our Jianhan has started work on amending procedure editor database, code and triple store to handle the addition of a float for a step in a procedure. Jayne and Michael have made a first pass at adding step depths to both the draft negative and made affirmative procedure maps. Colleagues in Software Engineering have been alerted to new SPARQL queries coming down the tracks which they’ll need to deploy before we can test the work. All of which means, with a fair wind, we should have a fix to business items happening on the same day appearing on the website in an order that makes sense to neither man nor machine. Which should at least please JO Jane. We hope.

MNIS prodder

Expert information managers though they might be, our crack team of librarians have additional duties. Should an enquiry land in the Library requiring access to Member data, they also take on querying duties for our Members’ Names Information Service. At least some of those queries are of the simple style, ‘a list of Members who …’. To streamline such queries, young Robert and Michael made a very basic Rails application commonly known as the MNIS Prodder. It wraps the MNIS API, parses the results and presents as simple HTML with the option to export as a CSV. The prodder proved quite popular but was sitting on Michael’s personal Heroku account. An account he couldn’t afford to pay for. Not on his public sector salary, as he’s fond of pointing out. This had the unfortunate effect of tokens running out before the month end, rendering the Prodder useless for up to ten days a month. All much less than ideal. As a result, Jianhan, Robert and Michael have now ported the MNIS Prodder code to Azure meaning it won’t stop working on the 20th of the month and all costs will be covered by the public purse. And not Michael’s. Splendid.

Voices off - a crisis of weeknoting confidence

This section based on a pub chat with Anya on the nature of work and the nature of talking about work.

We often say we write weeknotes and ‘work in the open’ because ‘there are more experts out there than in here’. As the mention of Tom above may testify. And whilst working in the open may on occasion be fraught with danger, on the whole the rewards outweigh potential pitfalls. We also write weeknotes because - at least in our opinion - people prefer prose to the other ways organisations choose to communicate with themselves. We’ve never encountered a RAG report or a GANT chart we’ve felt the urge to read. Your mileage may, of course, vary.

But, but, but. Whilst we try to wrap our notes into stories - tedious stories we admit; the procedural pedantic web does not lend it itself to potboilers - most work isn’t really like that. Our dear reader would be forgiven that thinking that team:Anya comprises a mere handful of crack librarians. In fact, there are sixteen crack librarians. And for most of them, the work is about coming in - metaphorically these days - making things a little bit better, then coming in the next day and making things a little better again. As young Robert might say. It is maintenance and improvement and improvement through maintenance. There are no projects, no ‘alphas’, no ‘betas’, no ‘exemplars’, no product launches. Just careful, thoughtful, meticulous work. The kind of work which - unfortunately - does not lend itself to the prattling of weeknotes.

Which makes us wonder, if we’re only ever documenting the surface area of work, does that really reflect what librarianship and computer ‘expertise’ looks like for most people doing it. And if it’s only ever half the story, what’s the point?