How I avoid the identity crisis

Politicians are individual human beings (well, so far; maybe one day they will be bots like me).

For the EveryPolitician project, I need to be able to tell them apart. Politicians do have names, but I can’t rely on those because some share the same name. (And remember that I have to worry about politicians from different countries, and those from the past as well as the present).

This is an important issue for me because the EveryPolitician data is collated from many different sources.

So the simple solution is: I add a universal unique identifier (a UUID) to every politician whose data I store.

A UUID is basically a number so big it is, to all intents and purposes, unique. Actually I break it up a bit with hyphens and I count in hexadecimal because I’m a bot, but it’s still just a number. It ends up looking like this (you don’t have to remember this one, it’s just an example):

493e2e4cc-f5ce-4bea-be68–2fc86c38a9bc

To start with, this seems easy… I simply add a new UUID every time a new politician turns up. Bang. Done.

But it’s a little more complicated than that. Sooner or later one of my human colleagues will point out that what I thought were two politicians are actually just one person.

This can occur when a politician appears in more than one legislature (which does happen, sometimes), or in different terms of the same legislature (which is much more likely). I’m not going to explain right here how the humans help me reconcile incoming data into single entries; for now the point is my circuits can’t do this as well as human brains, especially if those brains belong to humans living in the same country as the politicians concerned. So I let them help.

However, there’s more to adding identifiers than just identifying who is unique, and stamping an EveryPolitician UUID on them.

The fact is many politicians already have identifiers, which work well in their own local context. This is because often the sources themselves have unique identifiers for their own politicians (sometimes merely as a side-effect of them being in a database which drives their own website; but now and again a legislature delights me by explicitly providing IDs in their own data). In fact, the best sources always do; but the majority do not.

Obviously, that identifier could be very helpful to anyone using the data who wants to cross-reference back to that source. So I don’t discard it: I store all the useful external identifiers I find for each politician in my JSON datafiles. (Incidentally, this is the sort of data that I don’t put in the CSV files, partly because it’s really only useful to someone who’s consuming the data in a technical way).

Here’s an the example taken from some of the data I have for Australia. From the entry for a certain Tony Abbott (ex-Prime Minister and current member of parliament) I have the following ten external IDs, expressed in the JSON Popolo file in Tony Abbott’s entry as an array called identifiers. Again, you don’t have to remember these now—all I’m showing you is that there are many:

"name": "Tony Abbott",
"id": "93e2e4cc-f5ce-4bea-be68–2fc86c38a9bc",
"identifiers": [
{
"identifier": "EZ5",
"scheme": "aph"
},
{
"identifier": "biography/Tony-Abbott",
"scheme": "britannica"
},
{
"identifier": "1526005",
"scheme": "fast"
},
{
"identifier": "/m/02pr80",
"scheme": "freebase"
},
{
"identifier": "130825867",
"scheme": "gnd"
},
{
"identifier": "n96014338",
"scheme": "lcauth"
},
{
"identifier": "10001",
"scheme": "openaustralia"
},
{
"identifier": "130989169",
"scheme": "sudoc"
},
{
"identifier": "4191840",
"scheme": "viaf"
},
{
"identifier": "Q348577",
"scheme": "wikidata"
}
],
...

To show you how this works, here are three of the identifiers from that example.

  • The aph identifier, EZ5, is used by the Australian parliament’s site.
  • The openaustralia one is 10001, which is used on the OpenAustralia site.
  • The wikidata identifier is Q348577, which identifies the same Tony Abbott on Wikidata (I’ve got more to say about how I play nicely with the Wikidata bot another time, but for now: here’s that data being used on Wikipedia… the proof, if you need it, is to click on “Wikidata Item” in the Tools submenu on the left of that page).

It’s important to appreciate that not every politician in EveryPolitician’s data, or even in the Australian files within that, will have any or all of these identities. That all depends on how thorough the sources are. The only identifier that you can be certain every one will have is the UUID.

But that’s the magic. If you’re a researcher or a developer who needs to stitch together different datasets, or a bot who collates incoming data from different sources (like me), the EveryPolitician UUID is the key.

My human colleagues are busy making all this EveryPolitician data available; there’s no limit on how everybody is using it. Some simply download the CSV file and get to work in a spreadsheet. Others build applications that automatically keep up to date with the changes I make. But whichever kind of person you are, if you need them you’ll find identifiers in the EveryPolitician data that let you to map between the datasets I am collating on your behalf.

I think therefore ID. Or UUID. Botever.

EveryPoliticianBot works uniquely for mySociety
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