“Guess Who’s Coming to TCamp12” is a mini-series we started to introduce some of the faces that you’ll see at TCamp, something we hope will be useful to attendees and non-attendees alike. So far this week we’ve highlighted Ohio advocate Beth Sebian, Transparency International Slovakia’s Matej Kurian, and three awesome Transparency Camp Scholars. Today, we are happy to present Michael Mulley, who is working to open up the Canadian Parliament.
Michael founded Open Parliament Canada on the premise that “Parliament’s goings-on are important.” The goal is to make public Parliamentary information “meaningfully public,” meaning easily shareable and machine-readable. Mulley Recently moved to Montreal from New York “in search of better bagels”. In New York he studied computer science and linguistics while working in tech consulting. He currently operates a web development operation called Only Connect.
Michael answered some questions on his passion for open government, challenges he faced while building Open Parliament Canada, and the response his site as received. He also shared some advice for others thinking of setting up a parliamentary monitoring site in their own country
Has the Canadian Parliament noticed your work? Do you have any interaction with them?
Parliament as an institution has certainly noticed my work, and I’ve had some friendly and useful conversations with IT staff. I won’t pretend that I haven’t encountered lots of bureaucratic delay and frustration, and I can’t claim that I led to their opening data, but I since I started Open Parliament our House of Commons — whose internal data architecture is actually surprisingly good — has started releasing a fair of bit of data in XML.
Lots of Members of Parliament use the site too. They’re generally happy with it — after all, my goal is to get people to listen to what they’re saying — and I’ve useful discussions with a few.
You list some other websites as inspirations for OpenParliament.ca. What inspired you to be inspired by them? What made you want to get involved in open government?
Honestly? An engineer’s frustration at things that are more complicated than they should be. I saw TheyWorkForYou and thought it was just a self-evidently good idea. It didn’t exist in Canada yet — there was a nice vote-tracking site, but nothing with TheyWorkForYou’s focus on user-friendliness and MPs’ actual words — and I thought it should, so I made it.
Were there any particularly interesting challenges you faced in gathering the information you present on the website? Is it entirely automated?
It’s entirely automated (though that no-cell-coverage camping trip two weeks after launch was still pretty stressful!). I now have access to a bunch of XML feeds, but when I launched a couple of years ago everything was web scrapers, which are a source of constant boring challenges that make you realize that virtually every initial assumption you made was incorrect. For example, I assumed — quite reasonably! — that times were on a 24-hour clock. Turns out that when a session extends past midnight, the clock just keeps ticking past 24: if MPs have to work late, so does time. We had a filibuster recently which took us past 80 o’clock.
More fun has been trying to find ways to analyze the information — finding haiku hidden in the debates, using simple Bayesian stats to find out which words and phrases our different parties are fond of.
You described the Canadian open data portal as having “relatively little in the way of visible results, a pale shadow of…the US and the UK”. What’s the best thing the Canadian government could do for its open data program? Give it resources and dedicated team with a mandate to both educate within the government and interact with the outside world.
The open data program was revealed fully-formed, with a site full of PR fluff and a license that barred using data in any way that might make the government look bad. The license was fixed soon enough, and a few promising things have come out of the program. But the pattern of changes coming only via ministerial press releases has continued. I have no idea who’s actually running the open data program or what their plans are, and the combination of a not-particularly-useful site and a complete lack of outreach or communication makes me worry that our government will be able to say “Nobody used our open data, so we eliminated the program for cost savings.”
Is there any advice you’d give to people thinking of doing a parliamentary monitoring website in their own country? Look at similar sites elsewhere and read mySociety’s brilliant guide on creating such a site.
Parliamentary-monitoring sites as a genre are about eight years old now, and have reached the point where most developed countries — and several developing ones! — have a good, widely-used site. I think lots of us are interested in ways of reusing each others’ work, and that’s one of the things I’m really looking forward to discussing at TCamp.
And, finally: fun and informality are powerful weapons that you can use and your government largely can’t. This doesn’t mean cheapening politics or introducing bias; it means making things user-friendly and enjoying yourself.
Join us at TransparencyCamp April 28th and 29th just outside of Washington, DC to meet Michael and other folks — inside and out of government — who are working to making our government more open, accountable, and transparent. Register today at http://transparencycamp.org — and hurry! Space is limited.