5 Jul 2018

New software reveals who talks the most in Parliament

From Morning Report, 8:41 am on 5 July 2018

Politicians are famous for fudging their words, so a new algorithm from Auckland University is putting their kōrero to the test.

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Parliament's debating chamber. Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

Scientists at the university's Te Pūnaha Matatini research centre have developed a programme that determines whose voice is being heard the loudest when policy is discussed.

The tool is called "Look who's talking", but as Prof Hendy says, "we should probably get a more sinister sounding name for it".

"So, Hansard is the record of everything that's said in Parliament by the members of the government and by the opposition," he says.

"We can feed Hansard to a computer, our algorithm, and it can tell us who's talking about what and what their interests are and what kind of language they're using."

It's already coming up with some intriguing results.

"We looked at the last National government and actually it was quite interesting, we found they were avoiding talking about housing.

"So the opposition was very keen to talk about housing, lots of words spoken about housing, but actually the government did not respond.

Shaun Hendy

Professor Shaun Hendy of Auckland University's Te Pūnaha Matatini research centre Photo: supplied

"One of the things that we noticed over time was that debate was becoming more polarised.

"So we looked back at the Clark government and back in those days you tended to have groups of politicians that were talking about particular issues, but they weren't party political.

"You'd have a group of politicians who would be talking about the environment, for example, and they'd come from all parties, but by the middle of Key government what you saw was that the government was very on message."

He says he's curious whether that trend will continue. 

"Will we go back to more balanced discourse or will we have a more on message government like we had with the previous government?"

He says the opposition tends to always talk a lot more than the government.

"The government's strategy is to say as little as possible, and the opposition's is to say the most."

There is one politician the algorithm cannot figure out, however.

"I'll leave you to guess. It may or may not be the current acting Prime Minister."

Winston Peters

Acting Prime Minister Winston Peters Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

He says the team is very interested to see how the tool could be used to analyse whether what politicians say in parliament translates into actual policy, and in examining gender dominance.

"We haven't looked at the gender breakdown, but I think that would be a really interesting idea for the next stage of this work."

He says the tool could be adapted in future to smart speakers, or used to analyse speech patterns in more broad contexts. 

Morning Report's Guyon Espiner asks if it could be trained to perform analysis on interviewers and interviewees.

Prof Hendy: "Absolutely, yep, so once things get digitised …"

Espiner: "Will you promise not to do that? He said, interrupting."

Prof Hendy: (laughing) "... sure, OK."