A “big data” approach to studying parliamentary scrutiny

I have a new article out in the British Journal of Politics and International Relations: In Search of the Politics of Security. In it, I take what could be called a big data approach to the study of parliamentary scrutiny, by scraping information on the passage of legislation from the UK parliament’s website. The website’s current incarnation is relatively recent and there isn’t that much legislation passed every year so I was only able to scrape information on around 150 successfully passed bills. However the information which does come out is quite rich – all recorded votes, amount of time it took to pass the legislation, links to debates and committee hearings, etc. So I still think of it as a kind of big data approach.

My question was pretty simple: does the UK parliament offer less scrutiny on legislation which relates to crime and national security? This emerges from my interest in securitization theory and security politics, which I must admit I have recently been drifting away from slightly (as the war on terror has died down I also think it is becoming slightly less relevant). The project started off as an attempt to measure the scale of this difference, based on what I perceive as a quite widespread assumption that legislators essentially roll over when the government wants to toughen up crime or security law. In the end however I found a relationship in the other direction – such legislation seems to get more attention and scrutiny. It’s a smallish dataset and a limited time period so the conclusions aren’t hard and fast, nevertheless I think it’s a bit of a challenge to the way security politics is often conceptualised.

Why do MOOC users meet face to face?

Last week Monica Bulger, Cristobal Cobo and I presented a paper at the ICA’s pre-conference on higher education innovation. Monica and Cris are the experts in this area and did most of the heavy lifting, but I was pleased to take part, mainly out of a professional curiosity about how Massively Open Online Courses may or may not be changing the face of higher education. In the paper we looked in particular at patterns of offline meetups amongst the users of these online courses, using data from the Meetup API (my role being to facilitate data gathering and manipulation). Meetup have an open and generous stance to API data, and after a bit of coding I was able to extract information on several thousand face to face meetings of students taking part in Coursera courses in over 100 countries around the world.

Meetup - Map

More clicks on Wordle produced a word cloud of the titles of each meetup, which I can’t resist because it looks so nice even if it probably isn’t a good way of doing science.Word Cloud - Titles

What does it all mean? Beyond showing the impressive worldwide reach of Coursera, and the fact that people like face to face interaction when they are learning, we are still deciding to be honest with you. Suggestions welcome.

Computational Social Science: Social Contagion, Collective Behaviour, and Networks

I am part of the organising committee of this event -> part of my growing interest in all things related to sociophysics. Call for abstracts follows:


Computational Social Science: Social Contagion, Collective Behaviour, and Networks
to be held in Lucca, Italy, 24-25 September 2014

Website: http://cssworkshop.oii.ox.ac.uk/

Important Dates:
Abstract submission deadline 22 June 2014
Conference date 24-25 September 2013

Event Overview
Technology-mediated social collectives are taking an important role in the design of social structures. Yet our understanding of the complex mechanisms governing networks and collective behaviour is still deplorably shallow. Fundamental concepts of on- and off-line networks such as power, authority, leader-follower dynamics, consensus emergence, information sharing, conflict, and collaboration are still not well defined and investigated. These are all crucial to illuminate the advantages and pitfalls of collective decision-making, which can cancel out individual mistakes, but also spiral out of control.
In recent endeavours, data from Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Wikipedia, and weblogs have been shown to strongly correlate to, and even predict, elections, opinions, attitudes, movie revenues, and oscillations in the stock market, to cite few examples. Similar data provided insights into the mechanisms driving the formation of groups of interests, topical communities, and the evolution of social networks. They also have been used to study polarization phenomena in politics, diffusion of information, and the dynamics of collective attention. However, a deeper understanding of these phenomena is still very much on demand. In parallel, and even preceding the surge in interest towards social media, the area of agent-based modeling (ABM) has grown in scope, focus and capability to produce testable hypotheses, going beyond the original goal of explaining macroscopic behaviors from simple interaction rules among stylized agents.
The aim of this satellite is to address the question of ICT-mediated social phenomena emerging over multiple scales, ranging from the interactions of individuals to the emergence of self-organized global movements. We would like to gather researchers from different disciplines and methodological backgrounds to form a forum to discuss ideas, research questions, recent results, and future challenges in this emerging area of research and public interest.

QR codes on ballot papers


I was asked to provide a brief comment on this BBC Oxford article about the insertion of QR codes onto ballot papers by a political party in the south east. A really smart idea (and the party is pretty interesting as well), though also one which challenges something about the way we think politics ought to work -> should people still be deciding as they hold the ballot paper in their hand?


Over the last couple of months I’ve been involved with the “euandi” project run by Alex Trechsel at the European University Institute. euandi is a voting advice application designed to offer information to users about the extent to which their political preferences overlap with those of political parties standing in the upcoming European Parliament elections. The application is, from the perspective of a political scientist, pretty cool – you can visualize your position in political “space” and also look at which other areas of Europe have political views which align with your own, at a super low level of granularity (see pictures below). Apparently there’s a place for me in every country though I’d be best off in Sweden. Who knew? :-)

My political europe


It’s been a really interesting project to be a part of – there were over 100 people in the team spread across all 28 member states, so I was a relatively small cog in the machine. A couple of things have stuck in the mind. It is first of all pretty difficult to position parties accurately. A lot of questions on the profiler were quite nuanced (e.g. I would support green energy even at the cost of higher energy prices, social programmes at the expense of higher taxes, etc.). However contemporary political parties won’t ever present this nuance: green energy is presented as a way of lowering costs, social programmes can be maintained without tax, etc. Is this something that turns people off contemporary politics, or has it always been this way? Not sure.

My political space

Second, like all such applications euandi presents a purely issue based view of politics – no room for questions of competence, trustworthiness etc. Lots of people are surprised when using it that they are placed with an apparently minor or radical party (and of course many “far right” parties have very left leaning / socialist policies in terms of labour law, employment protection, etc.). Hence the results need to be handled with care and don’t directly replace knowledge of the political system.

Can we boost turnout with such mechanisms, or do they only appeal to those already interested in politics? I think there must be something in it, especially for those undecided or who perhaps want to find about a minor party. Nevertheless I think it’s also pretty clear by now that e-democracy isn’t going to lead to a turnout revolution: rather IMO it’s about nuancing and informing the decisions of those who are already interested.



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