Journalism students at Leeds Beckett University employed public data to answer a simple question: which MP in their region is the most hard-working. Using data from multiple sources the students analysed information on each MP, including how often they voted, how often they rebelled from a party whip, how often they spoke in parliament, how often they asked formal written questions to government ministers and — most importantly — how often they mentioned the name of their constituency from the floor of the Houses of Parliament. They then mashed it all together and created a league table and a number
The students followed up the data exercise with conventional reporting — interviewing several MPs and other experts. The impact on the students is significant. At the start of the project, many of them couldn’t name their local MP, let alone say what they stood for, how they had voted on their behalf, or how effective or busy their representative had been in the last 12 months. By the end of the projecmost students were highly engaged with party politics and had, along the way, learnt about many complicated facets of British public life, such as the Party Whip system (did you know that whips were banned from speaking in parliamentary debates?), the use of Hansard, the structure of government and so on. Other students looked at more specialised data, such as gender balance, or stance on leaving the European Union (we discovered that not one of Yorkshire’s 60 MPs voted to leave the EU).
In terms of technology we used nothing more complex than google drive (sheets), a few infograms and a bit of HTML. But he real innovation is found in our method. Although being a humble university department with little actual budget and only two experienced journalists (in the form of the tutors) we did recognise our chief asset: human-power. There were 20 of us in total, each working eight hours a day for three days. That’s 480 hours in total (or if one person had attempted the task alone, that’s the equivalent of 12 working weeks).
In other words, this task could only be done in a group, so we crowd-sourced the work between us, first gathering all the data, putting it in a shared Google sheet and then cleaning the data, not once, but twice.
The main source of data was Hansard, the verbatim record of everything spoken in the UK Parliament, cross-referenced with other publically-available databases, such as The Public Whip and Wikipedia. Where necessary, the students used very old technology — they rang up the constituency offices to check data discrepancies and ambiguities.
What was the hardest part of this project?
The size of the task. Although many young people are interested in politics, there are many more who are disengaged. Even some of our journalism undergraduates often arrive at our doors seemingly uninterested in the more current affairs that dominate the public sphere. Our task, part of it at least, is to change all that. To get our young people, many from disadvantaged social backgrounds, to engage in politics: to see that they have a stake. This project satisfies that ambition. By placing our leaders under a kind of data microscope — to see at a click how they all voted — and then rationalise the data, our students begin to experience confidence in a subject that has alienated them previously. It also creates a public good, our project is published on our own website and then disseminated across our social media channels. Our journalism creates a permanent league table of effort. At a glance, you can see clearly which of the region’s MPs are engaged in the main business of representation — what they should be doing — debating and voting.
What can others learn from this project?
Our method of “crowdsoucing” data, sharing arduous work across a group to lighten the individual load is directly transferable to other projects. Indeed we have already begun to replicate the method with other data projects.
The information gleaned from the exercise is also replicable. Other regions of the UK could be scrutinised in a similar way. Indeed, think about it, if we had enough people (undergraduate journalism students) the entire country — 650 MPs — could be placed under this level of scrutiny.