Our latest blog post, provided by Leeds POLIS PhD researcher Nicole Nisbett, provides some recollections on the recent launch event for the new Hansard website, and its unprecedented usefulness to scholars of Parliament and politics.
The new Hansard website was launched on July 6th 2018 in Westminster Hall’s Jubilee Room. Members of the Hansard team – some of whom had been working there for many years – were able to demonstrate the steps taken to reach the new website and the new opportunities for research it provides. They estimate there are around 5 billion words recorded in Hansard from the 19th Century when the official records first began. All have been painstakingly transferred to digital form allowing anybody to find any speech, statement, or debate spoken in either of the Chambers. Any Member of Parliament, past or present, can be searched to find anything they have ever said in the Chamber. The team gave the example of Winston Churchill’s famous ‘we shall fight on the beaches’ speech, given in June 1940, to show how far back the digital records now spanned.
Perhaps surprisingly, Prime Minister’s Questions is not the most popular item on the website. E-petitions that reached the 100,000 signature threshold (qualifying them for a Westminster Hall debate) were the most viewed debates on the website so far, most likely owing to the fact that everyone who signs an e-petition is also sent a link to the Hansard transcript of the debate.
In terms of academic research, the new website is a treasure trove. It’s now possible to search the first uses of a particular word or phrase in the chamber, or how the word usage changes over time. This longitudinal data allows researchers to derive even more from parliamentary debates, and uncover patterns that may have otherwise been hidden. From the perspective of my research, identifying the first instance of the phrase ‘digital debate’ – or how often ‘digital debate’ is acknowledged by Members during parliamentary debates – provides an insight into how online engagement is recognised by Members, and how it contributes to their work. This is something that would have been almost impossible to do before.
The team have also looked at other parliaments to see how they use different technology such as automatic speech recognition and video data to link with the textual transcript. There was a clear effort made to ensure Westminster remained abreast of new technological advancements that could enhance Hansard. Accessibility was also an important factor for the team, who noted that the website is now mainly accessed through mobile devices.
The new website is a fantastic resource for anyone interested in parliamentary studies or politics. However, being able to search so easily for anything a Member has ever said may not be so popular with all. Some MPs would probably prefer if the Hansard team hadn’t done quite so good of a job!
Nicole Nisbett is a PhD Researcher based at the School of Politics and International Studies (POLIS) at the University of Leeds. Her research, funded by a White Rose Doctoral Training Partnership (WRDTP) ESRC collaborative award, focuses on digital parliamentary engagement strategies. You can find her on Twitter @NicoleDNisbett