Show me the data!

I sent my local MP (Don Foster, Lib Dem) a simple, fairly short (~265 words), clear & concise formal letter 18 days ago – I blogged the draft of it which is virtually the same here.

It’s been at least 13 working days now by my count and I still haven’t received a proper reply, so I tweeted @DonFosterMP last night:



I soon also got a reply from Don Foster’s press officer, email below:


From: “ROBERTS, Nick”
To: “‘Ross Mounce'”
Subject: RE: Letter from your constituent Ross Mounce
Date: Thu, 5 Jul 2012 10:12:06 +0000

Dear Ross,

I’ve just seen your tweets to Don. Apologies for the mix up. acts as a middleman and forwards your query on to our casework folder as opposed to Don directly. There is nothing wrong with this, it just means that our acknowledgment email goes to them and does not get forwarded to you.

We did receive your email of the 17th and rest assured we will get that response to you asap. However, we get over 500 emails a day so as you’ll appreciate there are backlogs. This is especially true in the summer when there are staff holidays. Our small team then have to prioritise “urgent” cases.

Once again, please accept my apologies for the delay in Don’s reply.



Nick Roberts
Caseworker & Press Officer
Office of the Rt Hon Don Foster MP

31 James Street West, Bath, BA1 2BT
t: 01225 338973
f: 01225 463630

NOTE: Information in this email is confidential and may be privileged. It is intended for the addressee only. If you have received it in error please notify the sender immediately and delete it from your system. You should not otherwise copy it, retransmit it, use or disclose its contents unless permission to do so is explicitly stated. Views expressed in personal emails do not necessarily reflect the position or opinion of the Liberal Democrats.

Personally I don’t care if my MP occasionally receives 500 emails a day – he can still send confirmation of receipt messages automatically surely? It would have been nice to know that my letter had at least been looked at.

I can’t help feeling that I’m being fobbed off here.

But it appears I’m not alone in being ignored. According to 2008 statistics from
Don Foster only replied to 57% of letters sent to him with their service (and in fairness this makes him far from the ‘worst’ MP in terms of response rate for that year; stats here).

With so many young people today completely apathetic towards UK politics, myself included, this hardly sets a great precedent. It was my first attempt to engage, and so far it’s been largely unsatisfactory.

So what to do next? I don’t know frankly. I await a fuller response from Don Foster himself.

I’ll keep this post updated with any further relevant correspondences.


It’s that time again… time to write my monthly Panton Fellowship update.

The trouble is, as I start writing this it’s 6am (London, UK). I arrived back from the Hennig XXXI meeting (University of California Riverside) after a long flight yesterday and am supremely jetlagged. I still can’t decide whether this is awesome (I can get more work done, by waking up earlier), or terrible as I can’t keep my eyes open past 9pm at night!

At this conference I shoe-horned some of my Panton Fellowship project work into the latter half of my talk (slides below), as it fitted in with the theme of the submitted abstract on supertrees.

Supertrees are just one of many many different possible (re)uses of the phylogenetic tree data I am trying to liberate from the literature for this project. I tried to stress this during my talk, as a lot of people at Hennig aren’t too keen on supertrees as a method for inferring large phylogenies. In fact, there was a compelling talk with solid data from Dan Janies given later on in conference, critiquing supertree methods such as SuperFine and SuperTriplets, which were outperformed in most tests in terms of both speed and optimality (tree length) by supermatrix methods using TNT. That’s fine though – there are so many other interesting hypotheses one can investigate with large samples of real phylogenetic estimates (trees).


  • Do model-based phylogenetic analyses perform better than parsimony? [Probably not, judging by the conclusions in this paper]  –  I’d like to see this hypothesis re-tested more rigorously using tree-to-tree distance comparisons between the different method trees. Except we can’t currently do this very easily because there’s a paucity of machine-readable tree data from published papers
  • Meta-analysis of phylogenetic tree balance and factors that influence balance e.g. (this thesis, and this PLoS ONE article).  Are large trees more imbalanced than small trees? Are vertebrate trees more balanced than invertebrate trees?
  • Fossil taxa in phylogenetic trees – are they more often than not found at the base of the tree? Is this ‘real’ or perhaps apparent ‘stem-ward slippage‘ caused by preservational biases?
  • Similarity and dissimilarity between phylogeny and measures of morphological disparity as studied  by my lab mate Martin Hughes

So, I hope you’ll appreciate this data isn’t just needed for producing large supertrees.

I could go on about the conference – it was excellent as ever, but I’ll save that for a dedicated later post.

Other activities this month included:

  • submitting my quarterly Panton report to the Fellowship Board
  • attending the OKFN Bibliohack session at QMUL’s Mile End campus (13th & 14th June) helping out with the creation of the OKFN Open Access Index, and learning how to use & debug a few issues with PubCrawler (a web crawler for scraping academic publication information, not a beer finder app!), with Peter Murray-Rust
  • discussing Open Access, Open Data and full text XML publishing with the Geological Society of London. The GSL have a working group currently investigating if/how they can transition to greater openness. Kudos to them for looking into this. Many a UK academic society may currently be hiding their heads in the sand at moment ignoring that the UK policy-wise is now committed to Open Access as the future of research publishing. It probably won’t be easy for GSL to make this transition as their accounts[PDF] show they are rather reliant on subscription-based journals and books for income. It’s hard to see how Open Access article processing charges could immediately replace the £millions subscription income per year from relatively few books & journals. Careful and perhaps difficult decisions will have to be made at some point to balance the goals of this charitable society, the acceptable level of income and the choice and amount of expenditure on non-publication related activites (e.g. ‘outreach events’).Interestingly, I note The American Geophysical Union (AGU) has recently decided to outsource their publications to an external company. Does anyone know ‘who’ yet? I just hope it’s not Elsevier.

Finally, the audio for the talk on the Open Knowledge Foundation and the Panton Fellowships, I gave in Cambridge recently, has now been uploaded, so I can now present the slides and the actual talk I gave together (below) for the first time! Many thanks for the organisers of the conference for doing all this work to make audio from all the talks available – it’s really cool that a relatively modest, small PhD student conference can produce such an excellent digital archive of what happened – I only wish the ‘bigger’ conferences has the resources & willpower to do this too!

…and if that’s not enough Panton updates for you, you can read Sophie Kershaw’s updates for June too, over on her blog