Henk-Jan Eras and Deru Schelhaas, The Netherlands
How to run a parliament during a pandemic? This very relevant question was posed by the Inter-Parliamentary Union during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Research suggests that the pandemic worked as an accelerator for digitalization in the public sector. Was this also the case for plenary sessions in parliaments? Roughly put, parliaments had two choices: running hybrid or virtual parliaments, or continuing with business as usual, but with social distancing and hygiene measures.
The Chamber of Deputies in Brazil chose the first approach, and adapted their systems to enable fully virtual sittings. How did they do that? They used already available platforms, such as Zoom, and their own Infoleg app, with legislative and procedural information, in use since 2016. For instance, they tweaked the app to allow online speaker registration and digital voting.
The Dutch House of Representatives chose the social distancing approach. This had an impact on the parliamentary process. For instance, voting sessions had to be carried out in three cohorts, slowing down plenary sessions significantly. Social distancing also had an impact on the parliamentary agenda, which, during the early stages of the pandemic, was swept to limit physical contacts.
Eras and Schelhaas proposed that both in the Brazilian and in the Dutch case, COVID-19 hasn’t proven to be an accelerator for digitalization. Brazil already had an IT infrastructure available to counteract the negative impact of COVID-19 on the parliamentary process. The Dutch parliament chose social distancing, not digitalization.
John Vice, United Kingdom
When the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered workplaces worldwide, parliaments were plunged into an unplanned experiment in working from home as well. John Vice, editor of debates in the House of Lords, gives us an insight in the challenges with regard to reporting virtual and hybrid sittings of the House of Lords in the UK. Furthermore, he shows us clips from virtual or hybrid sittings all over the world, showing sometimes hilarious situations which are challenging for reporters.
The average age of the Lords of the House of Lords is 72, so it is fair to say that not all of the Lords are IT-minded. Therefore, technical faults were bound to occur, even though there is a team helping the Lords with the setup. The clip shows a Lord: he is clearly talking enthusiastically, but is not audible at all. Before 2020, the word “inaudible” was never used in the reports, but it became quite popular during COVID times. Another example of a technical fault is that of the Lady with the black turtle neck. The setup at her house was done during daytime, but by the time she speaks, it is already dark and it looks like her head is floating, which distracts from the speech enormously. Should this be noted in the report?
Although MPs should be working from home during the COVID pandemic, sometimes the background makes it clear that they are not. In one clip we see a person using a picture of his home office as background, but he clearly speaks while driving, as his seat belt is visible. John Vice calls this category: I like to drive my car. Another person is using public transportation and has to wear a face mask. When he speaks, he takes off the mask, although that is not allowed. Should there be a reference to these kind of appearances in the report?
Dressed or undressed is another category of challenges for a reporter. One Lady is looking for her jacket in her dressing room before she delivers her speech. A member of the European Parliament answers questions while sitting on his bed without wearing trousers. What to do with these events in the official report?
While working at home, many persons are not as careful as they usually are at the office. Sometimes they even swear on camera. Does this appear in the report? Is it considered spoken or not? In this case, the most elegant solution for the report is to include the phrase “connection lost”. The swear is not reported. Similarly, accidents, like ringing phones, are often not reported, as long as there is no reference to them. But how to deal with the American politician who displayed multiple firearms during a house hearing on gun control? Should his display be mentioned?
Guns, children and animals appearing on camera during an official sitting can be a real challenge! With a lot of examples John Vice illustrated the challenges with regard to reporting virtual or hybrid parliamentary sittings during the COVID pandemic. He showed us for instance MPs sleeping, kissing their mistress or even appearing topless during debates. These forms of non-verbal communication contain important information relating to the debate. They tell the reporter something about the atmosphere, the mood or intention of the speakers. But should the all be mentioned in the official report? That remains the question.
Corinne van Dijk, The Netherlands
Corinne van Dijk discussed the various stages of the correction procedure of the Dutch Parliamentary Office. Digitalising the corrections of speakers has made the correction procedure far more efficient. Moreover, going paperless has contributed to a more sustainable way of working. The procedure is facilitated by VLOS, the reporting supporting system, which is used for the reports of plenary sittings as well as for the reports of meetings of standing committees.
As soon as a draft report is completed, VLOS sends an email to every MP and minister who spoke during the meeting in question. The email contains a unique link to the correction website that was launched by the Parliamentary Reporting Office in 2013. It allows the speakers (or their staff) to edit their words or make remarks. Corinne demonstrated the functionalities of the user-friendly website, which can be accessed from any desktop, laptop or iPad.
Once the correction deadline for a report has passed, VLOS is instructed to collect the correction proposals. VLOS subsequently shows which speaker has made how many suggestions. A team of senior reporters independently assesses and processes the proposed changes with the help of audio recordings and language and editing guidelines.
The guiding principle “What has been said, has been said” was illustrated with two examples. Since the introduction of video platform Debat Direct, one can easily compare the uncensored video of a meeting with the corresponding report. Corrections should therefore be limited to what is strictly necessary. Speakers whose correction proposals are not accepted receive an email stating the reasons for rejection. The final report is usually published two to four weeks after the meeting. The presentation was concluded with a brief discussion as to how rectifications are handled in the Dutch parliament.
Anneke Faaij, The Netherlands
Anneke Faaij, team manager of the Parliamentary Reporting Service (DVR) in the Dutch Parliament, explains how the development of the Reporting Service had its effect on the control of processes and the support of reporters.
Before 2010, the daily making of the parliamentary report was done fairly independently by a team of thirteen reporters. Every five minutes one reporter would go into the plenary room taking notes of who was speaking, the subject of the debate and of course what was said. After that, he would go to his desk and type out his notes, using the recordings he had made with his individual device. Two to three fellow workers had the daily task of supporting the reporting process. Their main job was copying and sending all the different parts of the report to the speakers so they could make corrections.
In 2010, VLOS was introduced: the Reporting Support System. In this software programme, information about the parliamentary program and MPs are brought together with audio recordings and notes that reporters take in the plenary room. The digital notes that reporters make for typing the report are shown real-time in the video of Debate Direct, making it easier for people to understand the debate and navigate through debates that took place earlier.
The introduction of VLOS changed many things in relation to how reporters work. All steps in the reporting process are now digital and almost paperless. VLOS has made reporting easier and has made the parliamentary process more accessible. People can now watch parliamentary debates whenever they want and can read the parliamentary report as it is being made throughout the day, because a new publication is made every two to three hours.
The central role of computers in the workflow also changed the tasks of the support workers. Computers in the meeting rooms have to be prepared to log the correct debates. Video and audio have to be monitored constantly to make sure that meetings are in fact starting and ending at the announced time. Reporters need support in using the software, especially in case of malfunction, although VLOS has proved to be very stable from the start. And because audio, video and hardware are outsourced to third parties, chain management and coordination are vitally important.
For all these new necessities and tasks, a separate division was established: the Control and Support division. The fellow workers in this division (thirteen in total) know a lot about the technique of reporter hardware, network connections, computers in general, audio and video, and the political process. Because the divisions tasks involve video, audio and text on the website, the work floor of Control and Support often resembles the surroundings of a newsroom or television studio.
Carlo Eugeni, Italy
Carlo Eugeni gave a presentation about how live subtitles can help reporters in speeding up their job. The question was how live parliamentary subtitling is used to speed up the reporting process.
In 2018 the idea was to combine the media access services of the municipality of Rome and the reporting services into a multiservice platform. Parliamentary reporting and live subtitling were put together in live parliamentary subtitling. Carlo made a comparison between the subtitles produced by automatic speech recognition and those produced by respeaking. When the voice of a speaker is clear, there is no respeaking. The respeaker helps the live editor with the subtitles. The reporter corrects the mistakes of the respeaker and the live editor. This is a second correction. After that, the subtitles are put in the report. When the voice of a speaker isn’t clear, the subtitles are produced by a live subtitler.
After analysing the accuracy of both methods, the conclusion is that respeaking in live parliamentary subtitling is more accurate, but slower than automatic speech recognition. Furthermore, assisted live parliamentary subtitling is more verbatim and quicker.
Eero Voutilainen, Finland
The presentation of mister Voutilainen was about linguistic accessibility. Accessibility has become a key requirement in official public online communication in Europe. The idea behind that development was that public websites and web tools must be usable by people with disabilities. By “accessible online content” the EU directive means that the content must be perceivable and robust, referred to as technical accessibility, and operable and understandable, referred to as cognitive accessibility.
The results from a survey of parliamentary offices say that the purpose of professional reporting is that the reports give access to speech events. Faithfulness, accuracy and neutrality in the reports are assumed. The language of the report can offer different types of access to the original speech event: access to content, interaction, and styles and identities.
The questions that follow from this case are how much and what kind of access is required in official reports and how to keep the balance between different forms of accessibility.
In his presentation, Carlo Eugeni explained the importance of Easy-to-Read language (E2R). Easy-to-Read language is easier to understand. For instance, simple sentences and common words are used. It makes information accessible for people with intellectual disabilities so they can more easily learn new things and take part in society. E2R is not only useful for persons with intellectual disabilities, but also makes information more accessible for everyone, especially when it’s about technical topics.
To produce E2R-texts, European guidelines have to be followed. These guidelines are accessible in many languages. There are three ways to produce E2R-texts:
Eugeni elaborated on the project Train2Validate, which started in 2020 and is still ongoing. The aim is to professionally train E2R validators (people with intellectual disabilities who check E2R-texts) and facilitators (people who help validators to organize and develop their job). For instance, a curriculum is developed and training materials are provided. Read more about the project Train2Validate here.
Niklas Varisto and Riika Kuronen, Finland
Automatic speech recognition (ASR) software has been adopted by the Finnish parliament since February 2022. Kuronen and Varisto gave a presentation about the realization and usage of the modern software.
There were several reasons to introduce ASR in the Finnish Parliament. Formerly, two staff members sat in the middle of the hall to take notes of what happened during the meeting. Typists in office used digital audio recordings to write the first draft, that was finished by reporters later. However, it got harder and harder to recruit enough typists. Since not every editor is a fast writer, the Records Office started looking into ASR to still be able to process large amounts of texts. Furthermore, Varisto told the audience that “ASR will be in our future, whether we like it or not”.
The process consisted of different stages: proof of concept, evaluation of the methods, request for tender, the parliament’s decision on the acquisition, and, finally, the introduction of the chosen ASR. The Records Office listed some requirements, such as a “live” mode for plenary meetings and the distribution of audio files from hearings. Reporters had to be able to work outside the office and Fenno-Swedish had to be a mandatory option, since that is the language spoken by some of the Members of Parliament.
Testing the different software programs was quite a challenge. Five editors got two weeks of to test the ASR’s. They used two hours of test material from many different speakers with short and long contributions. Varisto was “surprised by the quality” of word recognition by the software, which varied between 91.3% and 97.1% The best software was chosen and put into use. The ASR was based on a political language model of parliamentary records.
How did it go in general? Kuronen explained that the ASR functioned as expected and was widely accepted by typists and reporters. It offered the Records Office more flexibility in the distribution of tasks, and typists had less physical requirements. Of course, there were some teething problems as well. For now, it turned out to be too difficult to integrate Fenno-Swedish. Kuronen also warned the interested audience that usage of ASR requires a totally new attitude towards drafts, as ASR listens and calculates odds and has a lack of human touch. Reporters using ASR must focus more on details, but can’t forget the whole either.
Dan Kerr, Canada
Dan Kerr gave a presentation about the introduction of Automated Speech Recognition (ASR) in the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia. He explained that ASR was implemented in January this year for multiple reasons. Whereas periods of high parliamentary activity used to be followed by periods of low activity, nowadays there is continuously high activity, for example due to the possibility of hybrid or online meetings. Therefore, the aim of the implementation of ASR was to reduce, both physical and mental strain on the staff, and to embrace new technologies rather than being overtaken by them.
There were some professional, technical and editorial challenges to be met. For example, one of the professional challenges was to take away job security concerns. ASR was clearly meant as a better supplement to transcription, and definitely not as “the robot coming to take over your job”. One of the technical challenges was to include a specialized vocabulary, existing of terms specific to British Columbia. From an editorial point of view, one challenge was the fact that ASR delivers a wall of text without interpunction to the staff, who then have to tackle this into a readable text, instead of typing the text themselves. They have to be particularly careful not to be tricked into hearing what the eyes see.
After dealing with these challenges, the benefits of ASR could be embraced.
The implementation of ASR is considered a success, because of multiple positive results. The system has been well-integrated into the existing systems. ASR recognizes (almost) every word and although every sentence needs some kind of correction, this can be done very fast, so the overall time to complete a take has been reduced. ASR manages difficult or fast speakers very well. Moreover, there are various future technical possibilities to use ASR, for example for the alignment of transcript and video.
Andrea Wawrzynek, Croatia
The results of the text production competitions during Intersteno congresses made Mrs. Wawrzynek question whether there is an inherent difference between men and women when it comes to speed typing. During recent competitions, only up to 30% of the top 10 finalists were female typists. Mrs. Wawrzynek, a typing teacher as well as the president of the Croatian shorthand association, wanted to research this further.
She carried out a study in 10 schools in Croatia, with 283 students participating in total. To keep track of their performance and development, in three stages both male and female students were asked to type out a 10-minute text. During stage one, the students had very limited experience with typing: they typed with random fingers and were allowed to look at their keyboards. In stage two, around half a year later, students had learned all the letters of the Croatian alphabet and knew how to type with 10 fingers. In stage three, they were experienced and speedy typers. In all stages, male students performed better than female students.
The students were also asked to fill out a questionnaire during all three stages. The purpose of the questionnaire was to find out their motivation to learn speed typing and other distinctive factors that might explain their success in typing, such as their experience with playing music instruments, the time they spend in front of the computer (for instance to play computer games), their physical condition, and knowledge. The questionnaire results showed no significant differences between genders.
Ultimately, Mrs. Wawrzynek finds an explanation for the gender differences in typing performance in the electro-mechanical delay (EMD). This cognitive process describes how participants respond to a visual stimulus upon which they are expected to flex a certain muscle. This delay, of course, is highly relevant when typing. Research on EMD consistently shows shorter EMD times for men compared to women. In the conclusion of her presentation, she stressed the need for further research, but her findings support the case to separate genders in the classification lists of typing competitions.
Vittoria Ghirardi, Italy
In her presentation, Vittoria Ghirardi made clear that two functions of gestures are mentioned in different studies: the communicative function and the facilitative role in cognitive and linguistic processing. The main objective of her research is to provide evidence and support for a third function of gestures: a coping strategy to reduce cognitive load.
To do so, she analysed recordings of nineteen interpreters. She asked them to interpret a TED talk video lecture of eleven minutes from English to Italian. In the analysis Vittoria focused for example on the total occurrences of speech disfluencies and gestural usage.
One of her assumptions is that the frequency and the function of gestural behaviours in simultaneous interpreting accompany language processing and contribute to the meaning. Another assumption is that gestural usage is a way of offloading cognitive pressure while performing simultaneous interpreting. Furthermore, the coping strategy seems to be a positive resolution.
Boris Neubauer, Germany
The presentation of mister Neubauer was about shorthand systems, specifically in Ukraine. According to him, it is striking that we knew almost nothing about Ukraine ten years ago. He thinks it is important that we know about the history of this country in the context of our fields and he gives us an overview of this history.
The nineteenth century was important for the development of shorthand systems in Europe. The tsar forbad the use of Ukrainian as language, so there was no chance of developing shorthand systems during that time period. But then the provinces of Austria-Hungary got parliaments in 1860. That resulted in the need for parliamentary reporters, so in 1865 the first shorthand system for Ukrainian and Polish was developed, because those languages were spoken in Austria-Hungary at the time. The shorthand reporters mostly came from Austria and had learned the German system of Gabelsburger. They tried to write Slavic languages in that system and wrote a shorthand book for two languages with different rules. In Prague, the centre of thinking in those days, they thought of a system that worked for all Slavic languages.
The civil war in the Soviet Union in 1917 was important for shorthand systems. Conference reporters were needed everywhere. They came from different systems. In the Ukrainian SSR, Ukrainian was needed besides Russian. Ukrainian became not only tolerated, but supported until 1930. This was called the Ukrainisation. The Ukrainian language was introduced in the parliament during the process of Ukrainisation. Simultaneously, there was a development towards a unified Russian shorthand system.
Shorthand systems were news around 1930. There were shorthand magazines with information about stenography in Russia and there were scientific committees dealing with the shorthand systems.
Neubauer has shown us that Ukraine has a rich history in shorthand systems that we can learn from and should know more about.
Jonáš Vala, Czech Republic
Vala (20) was introduced as “probably the youngest speaker ever on an Intersteno congress”. He gave a presentation about shorthand in Czech, consisting of graphic shorthand, machine shorthand and machine shorthand for keyboard.
The oldest method in Czech was graphic shorthand, founded by Miloš Matula (1919-2005). He was not only a parliamentary reporter in Czechoslovakia, but also a statistician, working at State Institut of Shorthand. He could write up to 200 words per minute. He published Theory and Practice of Shorthand (1958) in which he emphasized the need for a fast hand and analysis of language to come to a high speed. Matula already thought of machine shorthand and the need of a larger average word length, open syllables and a larger number of alphabetic characters.
In the development of machine shorthand in Czech, two systems were used, one of which was Vrátnýs system, which used American shorthand machines. Jarislav Zaviačič tested multiple machine shorthand layouts. Despite all efforts, machine shorthand turned out to be too complicated to be efficient. In 1958, prof. Akopjan from Moscow created a system that could be used with a typewriter. When the user types an abbreviation, the whole word appears. The idea of “small pieces, whole words” was implemented by Zaviačič and he named the system ZAVPIS, which is nowadays used for live captioning at conferences and for transcripts for deaf people. Vala showed the audience different conjugations of the word “exhibition”, like “exhibitor” and “exhibited” and the abbreviations used in machine shorthand for keyboard.
Vala proved the speed of ZAVPIS not only by a live example in his presentation, but above all by winning six medals at the 53d Intersteno congress competition, five of which were golden.
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