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Are the Lords listening? Creating connections between people and Parliament - Information Committee Contents


CHAPTER 4: SETTING PARLIAMENTARY DATA FREE

Introduction

61.  The Committee heard a powerful case that Parliament should make its data more easily available online. Ben Hammersley, Associate Editor of Wired magazine, argued that it was "morally and ethically wrong" for Parliament not to make its data available in a form which could be re-used and analysed by others (Q 79). Simon McManus, a web developer, explained that most parliamentary publications were published in Portable Document Format (PDF), which caused "a number of problems:

(1)  Individual pages and sections are not indexed by search engines.

(2)  It is difficult to programmatically extract data from a PDF.

(3)  It is not possible to reference particular sections of a document."

62.  Publishing information in a PDF document can give the author or publisher some control over how the document is accessed and used. However, it can limit people's ability to use the data within the document. The effect of Parliament publishing information in PDF only was vividly seen recently in relation to MPs' allowances. People told the Committee that the information which Parliament produces (for instance in relation to legislation or expenses) is essentially public information and so there needed to be much greater "data transparency" (Q 86). The Hansard Society said that "Parliament must get better at making digital content available" and do "a lot more" to make its data available in a form that "people can then choose to reproduce and access." They suggested that the parliamentary website should become "a repository of information which the public can access on its own terms and in its own way" (QQ 4, 10). The Hansard Society and others emphasised that making digital content easily available online would be "a big step forward". Moreover, it should be "viewed as a tool to enhance communication and engagement, rather than simply viewed in a technology-context." As Simon McManus said, if Parliament were to make its data easily available online it would help people to "interact with both Houses" (p 143). Tom Watson MP, then Minster for Digital Engagement, agreed that people outside Parliament would be able to use Parliament's data to "make the richness of what we do here come alive to a wider community of people … our challenge is to provide all the data that we have got in a way whereby people can find their own value with it and their own ideas and innovation" (Q 265).

Making public data available online for re-use

63.  There is a general drive to make public data available online for re-use. On 21 January, his first full day in office, President Obama issued a 'Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government', in which he said that American executive departments and agencies "should harness new technologies to put information about their operations and decisions online and readily available to the public." Following that, the executive branch of the US Federal Government in May 2009 launched a website which allows the public easily to find, download, and use datasets that are generated and held by the Federal Government. In a statement to the House of Commons on 10 June, the Prime Minister announced that he had asked Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who is credited with inventing the worldwide web, to help the Government "to drive the opening up of access to Government data on the web over the coming months".[13] In a speech on 25 June David Cameron MP pledged to publish government data online in a standardised format and to "create a new 'right to data' so that further datasets can be requested by the public."

64.  What data should Parliament make more easily available online? The Hansard Society suggested a range of information from "transcripts of Hansard to digital video" (p 13). Others asked for information related to core parliamentary business, the "fundamental things" that Parliament does: legislation, expenses, Hansard, divisions, submissions to committees, and committee reports (pp 84, 104-05, 142; QQ 264-72). The "Free our Bills" campaign, run by mySociety, calls for Parliament to publish Bills in an electronic format that allows the public to access the underlying data so that they can build computer programmes and services around the Bills. The campaign has attracted some publicity and, as with the controversy around placing parliamentary proceedings on YouTube (see above paragraph 40), has led to criticism of Parliament. In a speech on 26 May David Cameron MP said that the way Bills were published online was "stifling innovation and blocking democratic engagement." He said that a Conservative government would "publish all Parliamentary information online" in accordance with open standards. "This will help people easily access Bills and other legislation in order to create useful applications—like text alerts when something you're interested in is debated. And it will mean many more expert eyes helping to explain laws as they're formed, flagging up flaws and suggestions for improvement." Jo Swinson MP supported mySociety's proposal that Bills should include electronic 'tags'. She told the Committee that "although being a slightly 'techie' solution" it would "really help people to connect with the progress of Bills so that they can make their views heard on the different amendments, the different issues that are being discussed". Tom Watson MP agreed that if people could see in digital format "the whole journey a piece of legislation takes" through Parliament, it would give them "a greater ownership" of what Parliament does (Q 268).

65.  How should Parliament publish data about parliamentary business? People asked that Parliament present its data on the website in accordance with "open standards". They suggested that parliamentary data should be made available in "eXtensible Markup Language" (XML). This development could allow the maximum possible re-use and analysis of the data to meet the needs of the user (QQ 4, 10, 78, 86).[14] The Hansard Society pointed out that the Irish Dáil publishes its parliamentary Hansard in XML, and the Canadian House of Commons has developed a highly successful XML-based system for all internal information-processing, publication and broadcasting.

66.  Parliament must not be left behind as others set new standards for online publication and engagement with the public. We recommend that information and documentation related to the core work of the House of Lords (including Bills, Hansard, transcripts of public committee meetings, evidence submitted to committees, committee reports, records of divisions, expenses and the register of Lords' interests) should be produced and made available online in an open standardised electronic format that enables people outside Parliament to analyse and re-use the data.

67.  The Committee welcomes the fact that officials in both Houses have agreed that parliamentary systems creating, holding or publishing data about the core work of the two Houses should be developed to deliver the information outputs required both internally, for the efficient working of members and officials, and externally for members of the public. The Committee stresses the high priority that should be given to this work and will periodically review its progress.

Progress so far on releasing parliamentary data

68.  There has already been some progress in this area. A new XML authoring tool for the Votes and Proceedings documents in the House of Commons has been creating data conforming to open standards since December 2008. The Historic Hansard digitised Parliamentary Debates from 1803 to 2004 are now available as XML files, which are downloadable from the parliamentary website. Parliament has also set up a prototype site to test and demonstrate user interfaces for the historic data, along with other functionality and to encourage user input into how these interfaces are developed in the future. The parliamentary website has a trial version of a new presentation of the online Hansard text. In the new presentation, each debate has a separate page, so that page breaks do not occur in the middle of a debate or the middle of a speech. The plan is to add further features, including indexes by member, direct links from a member's name to a list of other contributions that they have made, and better links to relevant documents (such as Bills). When the new pages are fully functional, they will replace the existing presentation. Tom Watson MP, then Minister for Digital Engagement praised the "great work" being done by officials within Parliament to make parliamentary data available online. He said that they were "amazingly pioneering in doing work which … could be revolutionary in the future … they are essentially digitising lots of data, voting data, speeches, biographies of previous Members, and codifying it in a way which people can use and crunch up and do things with. When their work is complete, I think it will be an incredible resource for psephologists, commentators and citizens to try and understand the history of Parliament and what we have done in greater depth." (QQ 265-66)

69.  The Committee is impressed with development in the printed Hansard and welcomes recent developments in the online presentation of Hansard. We stress the need for the online improvement programme to continue.

Integrated information

70.  People raised with the Committee the difficulty of moving from one data-set to another on the parliamentary website. For example, it is not possible to move directly from a member's name appearing in the context of a debate to that member's committee contributions, voting record or entry in the register of interests (QQ 78-81). As Tom Loosemore said, information about members "is all over the place on the website. It is all there, but it is just scattered, and unless you know where to look, which nine times out of ten people do not, it might as well not be there" (Q 82).

71.  To counteract this problem, people suggested that there should be links between text published in different formats and audio-visual material (e.g. between Hansard and the video of proceedings) (pp 13, 101). People also asked for links between different publications that refer to the same procedural event. For example, a division in the House of Lords is recorded in Hansard and in the House's minutes of proceedings and is analysed on the parliamentary website, but no link exists between the three (or to information about the members or to the subject of the division).

72.  During our inquiry, we looked at a pilot demonstrator integrating video of Lords proceedings with Lords Hansard, which would enable users to watch, listen to and read a past debate at the same time. The Committee welcomed this advance and decided that development should continue with a view to offering a full service to the public by summer 2010.

73.  If people cannot readily find information on the parliamentary website, it might as well not be there. We recommend further integration of the various information sets (such as Bills, Hansard, records of divisions, the register of Lords' interests) on the parliamentary website. For example, in relation to information about members, we recommend that from each member's biographical page on the parliamentary website it should be possible to access directly a much greater range of information about that member's parliamentary activities (for instance, through links to the member's voting record, the questions and amendments the member has tabled, and the member's entry in the register of interests). Work is underway to facilitate such developments, and in December we will review progress towards the recommendations in this paragraph.

Online information about Bills

74.  We noted above the criticism aimed at Parliament about the information available online about Bills (see paragraph 64). The Committee received several proposals about how the presentation of information about Bills could be improved, particularly online. These included providing documents to show how a Bill affects previous Acts, providing explanatory material about amendments, and creating the ability both to look back to track how a Bill has been amended and to look forward to show how a Bill would look if particular amendments were agreed to (pp 65, 100-02, 142, 163; QQ 78, 85, 86, 231-37). We note with interest the 'compare versions' of Bills available on the parliamentary website, highlighting the changes made to a Bill in a Public Bill Committee in the House of Commons. Andrew Stott, the Government's Director of Digital Engagement, suggested that there could be an analogy with "Wikipedia, the online encyclopaedia, which tracks every amendment which is made to an Article. If you go to the history tab you get a whole list of the versions of that page and you can compare any two versions and [see] the differences, and for each change there is a link to who made that change, when they did it and on Wikipedia there is a space for a short comment on why they made it". He considered that such a system could be adapted to Parliament's consideration of a Bill, with "links to the supporting papers, and so on" (Q 270).

75.  Tom Watson MP said that such improvements had the potential to bring Bills "alive" to people. He considered that such developments were "good" and probably "inevitable", and he suggested that Parliament "should go out and embrace those people who want to help us" to deliver them. He cautioned that it was "not an easy technical job" and that it would need resources, but "it would help people engage with legislation" (Q 268).

76.  We recommend that the presentation of Bills on the parliamentary website be developed so as to make the legislative process more transparent. The Bill pages should be enhanced by the integration of information that we have called for above (see paragraph 73). For example, it should be possible on the parliamentary website to link between the following: each amendment tabled and the point in the Bill that it seeks to amend; the explanatory note on that portion of the Bill (where applicable); information about the member(s) who tabled the amendment; the Hansard record of the debate (if any) on the amendment; the audio-video recording of the relevant proceedings; an analysis of any division on the amendment; and a note of whether the amendment was moved, withdrawn, debated, agreed to or not. We recommend that it be possible online to look back and see how a Bill has been amended as it moves through Parliament. That is, it should be possible to see online how a Bill has been amended at each stage and also to compare any two versions of a Bill (for example, to compare the Bill as introduced in one House with the Bill introduced in the other House or to compare the Bill as introduced to Parliament with the Bill that receives Royal Assent). Such changes would help all those following a particular Bill: members, their staff, officials and outside organisations.

77.  We recommend that the House of Lords administration invite officials in the Commons and PICT to explore with them the feasibility of creating an online system where people can sign up to receive electronic alerts and updates about particular Bills or portions of Bills relevant to their interests.

The role the Government should play

78.  In most cases, Parliament is the principal or sole creator of its data. However, there are a number of significant exceptions, where the data is shared or transferred to Parliament from the Government. For instance, European documents considered by the scrutiny committees of the two Houses, answers to parliamentary questions, written ministerial statements, papers deposited in the Library of either House by a Minster, and most Bills all come to Parliament from the Government. The vision we have outlined above cannot be achieved without Government collaboration. The Government needs to share our commitment to use fully open standards for data. The Government should work with Parliament to implement common standards for the categories of information we mention in this paragraph, so as to improve the flow of information between Government and Parliament and to enhance the public's ability to re-use that information.

79.  In order to enable the implementation of our recommendations in this Chapter, we call on the Government to start producing Bills in an electronic format which both complies with "open standards" and is readily re-usable.

80.  In relation to Bills, we also recommend that, for each Government Bill that significantly amends an earlier Act, the Government should produce an accompanying informal document to show the original legislation and how the Bill would change it. Such documents, which would have no legal force, would contain the provisions of the earlier legislation and show the effect of the amendments embodied in the Bill. They would help people to understand the effects of Bills being debated in the House. We envisage that the Government and the House could agree to exempt certain Bills (such as the annual Finance Bill) from this requirement. The Government's 'Guide to Making Legislation' says that departments should make such documents available to members where they feel that they would be helpful to members. In their response to the Constitution Committee's report on Parliament and the Legislative Process, the Government said: "If in a particular case members believe they need such material, they should say so." Those comments disregard the benefits that such documents could bring to people outside the House. We recommend that the Government produce these documents as a matter of course before the Second Reading of a Bill in the House of Lords and that the House make them publicly available via the Bill pages of the parliamentary website.

81.  In a debate in the Chamber on 16 June 2009, the Leader of the House of Lords, Baroness Royall of Blaisdon, gave the House "an undertaking of support for its work" in this area. She pledged that the "director for digital engagement in the Cabinet Office will work with the officers of this House to share knowledge about best practice and best technologies. We will look to how the needs of the House can be incorporated into the work that Sir Tim Berners-Lee has agreed to lead for us and we will work with the House to ensure that where information passes from the Government to the House and vice versa—for instance, on Bills or in Questions—it does so smoothly and in ways that support the open information objectives of the House."[15] We welcome the Leader's undertaking to support the House's work in increasing access to parliamentary data, and we note that parliamentary officials have already started working with the director for digital engagement in the Cabinet Office. We ask the Government to explain how and within what timescale our recommendations will be incorporated into the work that Sir Tim Berners-Lee will lead on opening access to data.

BOX 3
Recommendations on Parliamentary Data





13   Commons Hansard, column 797. Back

14   TSO already publish Bills in XML format, but the data is not fully open, structured or easily reusable. Back

15   Lords Hansard, column 1035. Back


 
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