OpenAustralia – Interview with Matthew Landauer
A while back I blogged about the launch of OpenAustralia.org, which essentially remixes Hansard to allow you to more easily track all the debates in the House of Representatives, and keep an eye on your local representative.
There’s nothing at OpenAustralia that isn’t available elsewhere, however, it’s the way the information is organised here that makes it a lot easier to find the kinds of things that citizens really want to know about, and participate in discussions regarding.
So for example, it’s easy for me to see that my guy has been asking a whole bunch of Questions without Notice, or what debates might be going on about the Liverpool Plains with regard to coal mining. And you can keep track of just about anything via RSS. You can also comment on any of the discussions yourself. This could be a great forum for Australians to express their thoughts and ideas “close to the source”.
I asked Matthew Landauer, one of the very hard working volunteers behind this project, a couple of questions about the project and where it is headed.
Maxine: First up, why don’t you tell me a little bit about OpenAustralia, and what you see as its great strengths. What does it do that nothing else does?
Matthew: The aim of OpenAustralia is to make it easier and more interesting to follow the goings on of parliament. I think you explained it very well in your introduction. You can read what Representatives say, sign up for email alerts, which will email you whenever your Representative speaks or even when they say a particular word, and do searches across all speeches.
For instance, if you’re interested in a particular issue, say World Youth Day you can get an email when anyone talks about it without having to trawl through an enormous amount of stuff.
We’re focusing on presenting the information in a way that’s useful for people. Rather than thinking about the Parliamentary Hansard as this gigantic bit of text that gets updated every day, you can read the debates almost like a threaded chat with little thumbnail pictures of the people speaking. It’s quite amazing what a difference the pictures make. It brings it all alive.
I would say, OpenAustralia’s greatest strengths in comparison to the official source of the Hansard, are the search, RSS feeds and email alerts. They’re what allow you to filter through easily and find out what you want, when you want it and how you want it.
We recently discovered that the Hansard on www.aph.gov.au doesn’t appear to be indexed by Google. I don’t know if that’s intentional or not. OpenAustralia is indexed and so that opens up another avenue for people to discover things of interest to them that happen in Parliament.
Maxine: How successful has TheyWorkForYou been in the UK? Have there been any stories about debate etc at TheyWorkForYou feeding back into the system somehow and influencing the Parliament itself?
Matthew: I guess I should first explain what our relationship to TheyWorkForYou is. Right from the start when TheyWorkForYou was launched in the UK about four years, they open-sourced all the software the runs the site. That included the parser that scrapes all the material off the UK parliament site, the definition of an intermediate XML format, the code that loads the XML data into a database and of course the web application itself. They did this with the intention that people in other countries could build something similar.
It’s taken a little while but to the best of my knowledge OpenAustralia is the first project that’s started from the TheyWorkForYou code base. We wrote a scraper from scratch for the Australian Parliament data that creates that intermediate XML data which then gets loaded into the database and web app. Then, it was just a case of making the content of the site reflect that we’re in Australia – changing House of Commons to House of Representatives – stuff like that.
What it’s allowed us to do is to get a really functional site up and running pretty quickly and so far we have only made use of a subset of its capability. There’s so much stuff to come!
Back to your initial question – in something like four years since TheyWorkForYou launched it’s had a pretty far reaching effect. It’s been successful on its own terms – a lot of people use the site, especially during elections. Over the years they’ve had a significant amount of mainstream media coverage. I think now they’re considered something that’s expected and normal like Wikipedia, or Google, or whatever.
At first, politicians didn’t seem to be quite sure what to do with this new thing. There were some speeches in Parliament which criticised them. Some of the younger MP’s, though, maybe more internet savvy, were accused of “gaming” the system to increase their ranking on TheyWorkForYou. See this FAQ at the Open Australia site for more detail on this.
But now, things are slowly starting to change as politicians realise it’s both necessary and good. Recently Cabinet Office Minister Tom Watson, set up a task force, The Power of Information to look at the opening of all kinds of government information. This is a slightly cheesy quote from a speech he made in March this year:
“When the MySociety people established the theyworkforyou web site, I began to understand how the old order of things was going to change. Put simply, I began to understand the power of information.”
But perhaps the more significant thing is how TheyWorkForYou has been a catalyst for so many other things. It’s probably not unfair to say that the site was the first real glimpse of what technology mixed with government transparency could actually look like. There are now projects all over the world doing similar things – New Zealand, USA, Romania, Italy and now Australia amongst many.
Maxine:How are you measuring the success of OpenAustralia.org? What would you like to see more of and how do you plan to make that happen?
Matthew: Our first priority is to get people to use the site! So, getting a good number of visitors is pretty important. Beyond that we really want to be a catalyst and open peoples’ eyes. When you listen to talks, or read policy documents about government transparency it’s very easy for your eyes to glaze over. But, when you see something concrete and simple like OpenAustralia which was built by a very small group of people in their spare time you can start to see the possibilities and understand how achievable they are.
So, we hope that other groups of developers will come along and build other really cool sites, maybe even using some of the data from OpenAustralia (an API coming soon!). We also hope ordinary people will appreciate the importance of open access to government information and talk to their Representatives about it.
Really, OpenAustralia in its current form is just the beginning.
Maxine: You’ve launched the site and started spreading the word about the project: what’s next on the horizon?
Matthew: There’s so much to do. The biggest things we’re working on right now are to get the Senate up and running so you can follow what Senators say in Parliament and to get the Register of Members’ Interests online. If you’ve been following our blog, you’ll know that we’ve been tracking down this document which says what gifts they received, what property and shares they own, stuff like that. It’s a pretty important public document which ensure the impartiality of members of Parliament. To our surprise it wasn’t available online, nor was it available in any electronic form but rather it sits as 1500 handwritten A4 pages in an office in Canberra.
We’ve gotten hold of a paper copy of the entire register, we’re going to scan it and now we’re working on a web application that will allow everybody to help transcribe these documents and then the plan is that you’ll be able to view the Register for each member of parliament on OpenAustralia.
Speeches that people make in Parliament are important but the stuff that really matters ultimately are the votes and that’s why we’re planning on adding all the voting information to OpenAustralia as well. That’s a really big task.
Maxine: Imagine you had a Bill Gates type benefactor who gave you the team and resources for 6 months to do whatever you wanted with OpenAustralia. What would you do?
Matthew: We’d like to to build a site for writing to your Representatives – something where you put in your postcode and it tells you all the people relating to your local area. As well as your member of the House of Representatives that would include your state’s federal Senators, your local councillors, your state representative and so on. At the moment, it’s harder than it should be to find out how and who to write to. The information is out there on the internet but it’s spread out all over the place. We would be bringing that together in one place focused on a single activity which is writing to someone who represents you.
There are other advantages to having a service like this – you can gather statistics about how often they reply to messages that are sent to them. This way you make your representatives accountable while at the same time preserving the confidentiality of a private message.
Going back to the voting information – there is an interesting and difficult problem associated with that. One of the things that the UK public whip site does is allow users to effectively categorise votes on bills under “policies”. So, for instance, to say if a politicians believes that immigration control needs to be tightened they would vote this way on the following bills. This then allows a politicians’ actual votes to be compared against the policies. It’s a difficult problem to do the categorisation in a way that is accepted by all. The Public Whip’s approach to this is to use a wiki style approach. It seems to work but really requires a strong and focused user community.
One thing that many people have pointed out in comparing the Australian parliamentary system to the UK one is that the voting information, especially in the House of Representatives, is inherently much less interesting in Australia than in the UK, because politicians very rarely cross the floor and vote against their party. However, I would argue that a deeper problem is that ordinary people do not have a way to understand how votes actually happen or what they mean. Making the votes more accessible and transparent (and open to analysis) will inherently allow people to question the decisions made which I strongly believe, in a fair and democratic system, will lead to better decisions ultimately being made.
And then there’s getting all the Hansard for the State Parliaments onto OpenAustralia.
There’s a huge stack more things we would like to do but hopefully that should give you a flavour of where we’re headed.
Thanks for giving me this oppurtunity to talk about OpenAustralia!