Last week we were lucky enough to have Tom Standage, deputy editor of The Economist, come into Parliament to talk about digital strategy and the future of news in a digital world.
It was a fascinating talk, not least because of Tom’s perspective on history and the wider context of the world we live in. The idea that a networked world has existed for some time in different forms and that people use data to bring about change is not new. However, the tools we have today are; they are faster and have much greater reach.
Opening up parliamentary data has always been a little on the controversial side. Tom mentioned that back in the 17th century, while the official actions of Parliament were publicly available, there was no publicly available record of debates. Publication was seen as a breach of parliamentary privilege and punishable by the two Houses, but as people became much more interested, many unofficial accounts began to do the rounds, often under the pretence of fictitious bodies and societies. Parliamentary data and information had real currency and social power. It was not until the early 19th century that debates were officially published by Thomas Curzon Hansard.
Fast forward to 2015 and people still have a strong interest in what happens in Parliament with more than 1.5 million people regularly visiting the Parliament website every month; reading debates in Hansard is still a top task. As well as reading the Official Record (as it is also known), our users are increasingly interested in accessing the raw data. This became apparent 4 years ago when in 2011 we ran Parliament’s first hack event in partnership with Rewired State. As part of Parliament Week , we invited developers of all ages to come along to The Guardian’s offices over one weekend in November, to make websites, apps and other useful tools using parliamentary data. This was somewhat of a hard sell internally as the word “hack” has other connotations, but once we convinced people that this was about digital creativity and not about testing our security, we had their support.
80 people along to that first event and built a range of useful and entertaining things; from games that showed MPs expenses, to visualisations that made great use of Commons and Lords Library data, to websites that showed when members were being asked to vote in the chamber and allowed citizens to lobby them on a range of issues. I was not only impressed by the huge interest there was in our data, but also the potential use people could make of it if only we made it available more easily.
After the success of that initial event, we had follow up events in Parliament, inviting those who had taken part to come and talk to us about how we could improve our data, which data sets they would like us to make available and ideas for potential uses of those data sets. Many of those attendees at that first hack were scraping data from Parliament’s website and using other sites like TheyWorkForYou to get hold of it.
We took their feedback on board and took advantage of the continued high level of interest by making the hack an annual event. In total we have now had 4 hack events, which have attracted more than 300 people who have built more than 150 projects. The list of projects [http://hacks.rewiredstate.org/events/acchack14] from last year is still a source of inspiration.
The hack events really served to reinforce just how important our data is. We already had many strong advocates from within Parliament calling for more open data. Back in 2009 the House of Lords Information Committee ran an inquiry entitled ‘Are the Lords Listening’. In their report, the Committee strongly recommended that Lords data be made more accessible following evidence from a range of witnesses including Ivo Gormley who said that “I think data is the first step. If you can open up that data, there are so many different uses for it, and that is what people want from Parliament.” from Parliament.” The Committee went on to recommend that “information and documentation related to the core work of the House of Lords 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.”
Earlier this year the Digital Democracy Commission published its report and recommendations following a year of broad consultation across the country to consider the challenges and opportunities for our democracy that digital technology presents. One of their key recommendations is that “by 2016, all published information and broadcast footage produced by Parliament should be freely available online in formats suitable for re-use. Hansard should be available as open data by the end of 2015.”
The biggest benefit of the hack events is that many people from across Parliament came along to meet the developers and help explain the data and what it contains. Together with the leadership we have seen from both Houses, this has helped to build real momentum within Parliament to make our data more accessible and easy to use, and given support to those who have been working towards it for a long time.
That momentum has helped to deliver an alpha of the data.parliament [link ] platform last year and then a beta earlier this year. So far we have published 29 data sets including Daily Hansard and Early Day Motions. This data is always a regular feature of many of the projects we see at hack events because it reflects the areas of interest our representatives have, the topics that they are debating and how they are voting on these issues. Altogether, that adds up to a more open and transparent politics that people feel more able to engage with. It’s this that tends to motivate those who give up their free time to come and hack parliamentary data on a cold weekend in November instead of doing their Christmas shopping.
The data.parliament team have made it easy for users to embed and use parliamentary data in their applications and to link it up with other data sources. They have also provided some very useful documentation on how users can consume the parliamentary APIs. And the team are blogging about their work and what’s coming next. Some of the data sets that the two Houses will be publishing in the coming weeks and months include Lords Attendance, Public Petitions, E-petitions, Committee Data, Deposited Papers, Private Bills Witness, Hansard and AV Live Log data. If there are any data sets you are particularly interested in using then do get in touch with the team firstname.lastname@example.org.
Accountability Hack - repeat
This year we are again running a hack event Accountability Hack, in partnership with The National Audit Office and the Office for National Statistics. This will be the 5th year in a row that we have run a hack which reflects the strong and continued interest there is in parliamentary data. Meg Hiller MP, and member of the Speaker’s Digital Democracy Commission will be kicking off the event on 21st November.
If you’d like to take part then you can sign up on the event website - we’d love to see you there.