A few hundred years ago, the debates that took place in the British House of Commons were a State Secret- it was illegal to record or publish them. Eventually, some MPs began to publish them anyway, disguised as the minutes of debating societies. In response, the Westminster authorities authorised the production of Hansard, the daily account of proceedings in parliament.

Today, Hansard is available on the web. But the debates appear in lengthy scrolling pages, without context, hyperlinks or easy accessibility.

One of the last sessions at the recent NotCon '04 event, was the launch of a new website, theyworkforyou.com. It aims to make sense of Hansard. You can search for your MP by your postcode, and then view all of his or her statements in the Commons. Performance statistics on each MP are also available, such as the number of statements made, promptness of responses to constituents, and how often they defy the party whip.

You can read whole debates, with hyperlinks to a glossary of terms, and to information about the speakers. You can contribute new glossary terms. You can add comments to the debates to provide context, explanation or dissent. Click on your MP, and you can send them a Fax. You can set up RSS newsfeeds or email alerts that notify you every time a particular topic is mentioned, or a particular MP speaks.

Since April 2006, the site has performed the same service for the House of Lords, so that users can track the (frankly more interesting and better-informed) debates in the upper house. An archive of lords' debates going back to 1999 was also added.

The powerful parsing software that converts the flat file Hansard pages into this powerful resource has been made publicly available under an open-source license. (Each module is written in either Perl or Python) It can therefore be used by other organisations, and interested programmers can contribute new features. The chap who added the Northern Ireland Assembly to the mix was able to do so in about 600 lines of code. The debates and other content are available in easy-to-use-in-your-subversive-plot XML.

The Internet at large will also benefit from TWFY. The site's creators have been careful to structure their pages to suit search engine spider-programmes. In particular, the googlebot has been making great progress. At the time of writing, Google has indexed over 1600 debates, 5700 written answers, almost 200 glossary terms and all the MP home-pages.

The site's creators hope that it will empower citizens to take a greater role in holding parliamentarians to account, and so strengthen democracy. Since launch, they have added several other debating chambers and fourms to their database, and they now feature:

Video of the launch (sadly, without sound) is available here: http://quernstone.com/notcon04/ . Audio of the launch is available here: http://www.ejhp.net/notcon/t12.ogg and here: http://www.ejhp.net/notcon/t12.mp3

When better to launch such a thing than on the 60th anniversary of D-Day?


Sources:
  • Discussions at NotCon '04
  • They Work For You - Theyworkforyou.com
  • The Official Hansard website - http://www.parliament.uk/hansard/hansard.cfm
  • Whitelabel.org posting by Stef of TWFY - http://www.whitelabel.org/archives/002145.html

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