But let’s face it – reading through pages of House of Commons (or other assembly) debates online (or from a printed out PDF) is pretty dry stuff. Consequently, it isn’t surprising that many parliaments have been trying to make their online Debates pages more interesting and informative for the reader.

Innovations in Parliamentary Websites

As someone who regularly visits parliamentary websites — and by regularly, I mean several times a day, even on weekends — I can’t even begin to explain how deeply grateful I am for well-organized sites that allow to me easily navigate the site and quickly find whatever It is that I’m looking for.

While many parliaments have put (and continue to put) a lot of effort into modernizing their web presence and trying to find the best ways to present the Parliament’s business, the truth of the matter is that a lot of parliamentary business tends to be rather static and dry. Much of the business of a legislature is debate, and yes, while it is great to be able to stream debates live, more often than not, it’s not live debate researchers are interested in, but past debates. This means turning to the records of past debates, more commonly known as Hansard.

Most parliamentary websites present their Debates in two ways, as a web page and in print format (usually a PDF, but I do know of some that allow for other formats as well). The web page is usually easier to navigate as there is an index at the top, or to the side, and you can easily click on the section that is of interest and quickly navigate to that particular spot. However, web pages don’t always print out very well, which is where the PDF versions come in handy.

But let’s face it – reading through pages of House of Commons (or other assembly) debates online (or from a printed out PDF) is pretty dry stuff. Consequently, it isn’t surprising that many parliaments have been trying to make their online Debates pages more interesting and informative for the reader.

The Canadian House of Commons website has integrated a number of interesting features into its Debates pages. To follow along, click on this link to open the Debates from Wednesday 1 October 2014 in a new window or tab. When the page loads, you should see the debates in the centre of your screen and a Table of Contents menu in a sidebar on the right. Everyone click on Routine Proceedings in the Table of Contents menu.

Two things happen – the Debates in the middle of your screen immediately scroll down to the start of Routine Proceedings, and the Table of Contents list in the menu on the right changes to display only the sections under Routine Proceedings. In the menu, click on Support for Volunteer Firefighters Act. Again, the text of the Debates in the centre of your screen automatically jumps to that section, while the menu on the right now displays only the names of those Members who spoke during that section.

In the main text section, just above the name of the MP (Ms. Christine Moore), you will see [Expand] written in pale grey text. Click on Expand. This will now reveal more options, including a photo of Ms. Moore and other information about the MP, including links to her profile, her voting record, etc. You will also notice an option for “View this Video”. If you click on that, in the sidebar on the menu, a new box will appear which will start playing the video of this specific event in the House (note, it might require you to install Silverlight on your computer in order to work).

By contrast, the UK Parliament’s House of Commons Debates pages are rather more old school. Please click on this link to open in a new window or tab the Debates for Wednesday 15 October 2014.

We first see a condensed table of contents listing only the main items of business for that day. If you scroll down a bit, however, there is a far more detailed table of contents which includes column numbers, headings, time lines and names of Members participating in the proceedings. In the first table of contents at the top of the page, please click on “Prime Minister“. This will take you directly to the start of Prime Minister’s Questions (or PMQs). If you scroll down through that, you will note one immediate disadvantage — without a sidebar with a table of contents similar to what we had on the Canadian House of Commons Debates page, there’s no easy way to quickly move to a different section. There isn’t even a “back to the top” option. Even if you manually scroll all the way back up to the top, don’t get the table of contents back. The only way to return to the table of contents is to hit the back button on your browser.

While the UK House of Commons current online Hansard is on the rather staid side, there is work being done to change that. While still currently in beta mode, I do still want to bring to your attention the Digiminster Members Data Portal. This is going to be amazing — it already is.

Let’s go back to our example from above, the PMQs from 15 October 2014. On the Digiminster homepage, the first section is Parliamentary Debates. Click on “Commons” under the photo of the Green Hansard volumes on the right. Once on the new page, click on October 15 in the calendar on the left. In the table of contents of proceedings for that day, under “Prime Minister“, click on “Engagements“. This will bring up exactly the same thing we were looking at previously, the transcript of PMQs for 15 October 2014. But isn’t this version so much more interesting to look at and, oddly, easier to read?

There are so many interesting features on the Digiminster site. For example, you can find out how many times and when any MP or Lord spoke, either on a given topic or on anything during a specific date range. You can track division data for given dates – when votes occurred on each day and how many, and the outcome. There is data on the composition of both Houses by party and gender, as well as MPs and Lords individual voting records. I invite you to randomly play around with the site – choose any MP and various date ranges to see what information can be generated. If you want to try by keyword and aren’t sure what might generate results because you don’t follow UK politics that much, try “NHS” — there is always a lot of debate about the National Health Service.

I have to say, you have no idea how excited I was upon discovering the Digiminster website! If you want to read more about the people behind, check out their website. You can also follow them on Twitter: @digiminster. They’re doing great work, and I look forward to what they bring out next.

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