The federal government has gone to great lengths to be open and transparent. And then they stopped.
The new open government is one which offers information in easy-to-organize formats. That is, making schedules or meeting minutes that used to be buried at the bottom of a .PDF into accessible, searchable data.
Open government ideas, in this new digital sense, are gaining momentum across Canada, with Vancouver and Toronto leading the way.
But as municipal governments went further to open access to services and information, Ottawa has not. OpenParliament.ca aims to help the federal government along.
Launched recently by Montrealer Michael Mulley, OpenParliament organizes nearly every bit of info that comes out of the House of Commons with Google-like ease-of-use. Search by topic, date, or MP. Quotes, debates, voting patterns, election results - impressively, it's all there. (And even more will be there by year's end, thanks to open government hero David Eaves.)
Mulley explained his OpenParliament project to NOW in the Q&A below.
How did you get all the data on OpenParliament.ca? Was there an XML available, or did someone from the House or Hansaard give you the data?
Scraping -- a fairly laborious process -- from the public online Hansard documents. No XML, except for vote data, which Parliament does publish in XML.
Was there lobbying/persuading involved in getting the data for the site?
No, because I used only data from the public Parliament site, and did the work to scrape it.
I sent a couple of e-mails asking about getting data in machine-readable formats, but those achieved nothing and, not having any connections to even start lobbying, stopped there. I've since heard from people who've made more concerted lobbying efforts to Parliament and also gotten nowhere -- though Parliament has now agreed to publish some information in open formats.
Before this site, where you campaigning for open government in other forms?
Not really. I'd done some playing around with transit data, for example, but this is my first major public project with government data. And even though I certainly am an advocate for open government and data, openparliament is intended as a resource more than as a campaign. If it has some small catalytic effect for open data, I'll be thrilled, but it's mostly intended to be a useful site as-is.
How can you explain the gains of open government to the average person?
For the gains of open government data, the answer's one word: innovation.
When you share information, you allow people to build on it, to experiment with it. And experimentation -- the ability to turn an idea into a prototype, to see how people respond to it -- is the engine behind pretty much all technological progress. When you give people the tools and freedom to innovate, they will.
There's a slightly techy analogy to open-source software. I still meet people who are amazed by the notion that there are all these people out there just writing software for free. But there are! People like to help people! Existing software and tools provide a ladder, and the Internet's essential freedom allows people to quickly share ideas.
This means there's tons of crappy, half-baked open-source software out there; this means that government data is going to produce lots of not-especially-useful projects, that nothing astounding will happen at the flip of a switch. But open-source software is also what runs the Internet.
This is how innovation happens today. Government should enable it, not stifle it.
What sort of governement data - from any level of government - would you like to see freed up?
I didn't start this project as an activist for open data. I started this project as someone who thought something was harder than it should be, and wanted to make it easier. So I only really know about that data I've tried to work with -- namely Montreal bus schedules and Parliamentary proceedings. I'd love to see those freed up.
But the goal of talking about open data isn't to get data set X freed. It's to encourage a culture where information is shared by default -- and it's a cultural change more than a technical one, the technical effort is involved is usually quite low -- so when someone somewhere with no particular connections has an idea that builds on public data, they have tools to follow through on the idea.[rssbreak]