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In with the old, in with the new

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Digital, Technology, Workplace Culture

The relationship between digital and any other format of art, communication and production is often presented as one of conflict. Hansard is proof that it doesn’t have to be that way.

Few people outside Parliament know exactly what Hansard is. And those who do know seem to think of it as an old and mysterious institution. But I sometimes ask people whether they’ve ever signed a popular e-petition and received a link to the report of the debate afterwards. They often answer, “Oh, is that Hansard?” Yep. Long-established organisations do have the capacity to move with the times. They have to or they won't survive.

Conflict is good in cinema, not in real life

I recently watched a film called While We’re Young, starring Ben Stiller and Adam Driver as film makers separated by a generation. The storyline was flimsy (don't worry, this isn't a film review), but an early sequence captivated me.

The camera pans across the shabby-chic home of Driver’s millennial man. It's a kitsch apartment with bare floorboards, cute blankets, kittens, a typewriter, and vast collections of VHS tapes and vinyl. Stiller’s visiting Generation X-er is wistful and envious. He compares the place to his hi-tech Ikea show home. Driver plays basketball outside with real sweaty people. Stiller pads away on a treadmill next to rows of city slickers, who perspire. Driver reads books and plays board games. Stiller reads his kindle and paws at bright colours on his iPad. Stiller has locked most of his life away in the cloud. Everything in Driver’s is tangible. (I really do promise this isn't a film review.)

The film presents the viewer with a fundamental question. Are you a young hipster with a reappreciation of the simpler and heavier things in life—a Tom or Barbara Good for the computer generation? Or are you a smug early-adopter, safe in the knowledge that you’ll never lose your treasured memories to a burglar? Choose now. Pick a side.

Hansard: not just a pretty backdrop

The relationship between digital and analogue products and processes is often presented as a choice between competing lifestyles. But why? Like in politics, people tend to pick a team and stick with it, whichever side they're on. We humans are generally more comfortable with the familiar. But it's only by acknowledging the value of various media that we can get the full value of many products. Hansard is a prime example because our report of a debate takes many forms.

At one end of the spectrum is the raw digital audio and visual output produced by the broadcasting team. At the other end are the bound volumes (the big green books that always seem to be the backdrop for Sunday morning TV interviews with MPs). There are many stages in between. Each format helps the viewer or reader to understand what took place in their chosen debate.

We call the book containing the report of the previous day’s business the Daily Part. Around 600 copies are printed each day and circulated within Parliament. Hansard Online is updated on a rolling basis when copy is ready to read. That happens a matter of hours after a debate.

Our website was redesigned in 2015. We made it easier to search and device compatible, so that it resizes to fit whichever screen you’re using to read Hansard. It's also now easier for anyone to share individual MPs' contributions on social media. The site also looks much prettier than it did. Maybe I’m shallow, but we all know it's important. Never judge a book by its cover, but definitely judge a website by its homepage. We use Google Analytics to monitor traffic to our website, so we can tell that readership figures have soared as a result of these enhancements.

The current Commons and Lords Hansard website, complete with bound volumes


It’s not only the finished article—or in this case, report—where Hansard couples traditional with digital. The production process no longer involves short-hand and typewriters. Instead, we use a healthy mix of technology and traditional methods to produce an accurate report within tight deadlines.

Reporters use a customised version of Word to type copy. It's also at this point that we insert the metadata that shapes the online content. But we use good ol' fashioned pen and paper in the Chamber to record who's speaking and to scribble notes. We also send MPs hand-written queries using a dumbwaiter that we call “the Chute.” It’s the quickest way to reach them if they’re taking part in a busy debate.

Image courtesy of UK Parliament/Mark Duffy

Don't pick a side

You might prefer the smell of ink. Like many people, your eyes might feel happier reading on paper than on a screen. Or you might want to share content and search on the go. The important thing to realise is that you don’t have to choose. The weight of the words is the same whether you're turning pages, scrolling or swiping through the day’s debates. You can be Ben Stiller and Adam Driver. What more could you want?

We have some exciting digital developments in the pipeline over the coming months. And we’ll ask the staff involved to blog about them, so you can read the stories behind the processes.

If you use Hansard, please let us know what matters to you. Click here to take a brief survey and for a chance to meet the Hansard team. 

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