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The challenges of open and consistent government data

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Kildarestreet.com was launched in May of this year as a means of allowing the public to keep a closer eye on their parliamentary representatives. It allows the public to track the activities of their elected TDs (think Congresspeople/MPs) on an easily accessible and searchable website. The site records all their speeches, remarks and votes in the Dáil and also provides a platform in which citizens can comment and discuss these debates and remarks.

One of the rationals for the site was to make the activities of the Dáil more Open, Transparent and Accessible. The accessibility issue was a major factor in the development of the site. The full text of the Dáil and Seanad, including written answers to parliamentary questions were already published on the Oireachtas website. Searching this site, however, and contextualizing and linking the comments to individual representatives was difficult. Kildarestreet.com solves these issues by linking together TD’s Dáil activity in a transparent and accessible format, thus providing greater accountability to the people for all their actions in parliament.

Site contents

KildareStreet.com contains information on the profile and performance of TDs not currently available on any Government sites. It has profile pages for each TD which lists their voting record, constituency details, topics of interest, Dáil activities (including Debates and written answers) and a numerical comparison of their parliamentary participation versus others e.g. how many debates they have spoken in compared to other TDs.

The site was developed by John Handelaar and is based on, and uses the same Open source software as, the UK website TheyWorkForYou.com. He notes some of the site features as:

  • A dramatically-more-legible version of the Dáil Record going back to January 2004,
  • Searches restricted to speeches or written questions, by speaker, or by date or date range,
  • Sign up for email alerts for when a search query you’re interested changes, or whenever a TD of your choosing says something or asks a question which generates a written reply, and
  • Subscribe to RSS feeds for individual TDs or for search queries.

Inconsistent data

The site relies on the ‘canonical’ version of the Official Parliamentary Record provided by the Oireachtas.  Debates and questions need to be extracted from raw XML files provided by a third party working for the Oireachtas.

Handelaar explains this process:

The trick, however, is to get all the actual debates and questions into the site’s database. You need to build a parser program to convert all that data from one format into another — in Ireland’s case, from the raw XML published by the Houses of the Oireachtas which is primarily intended as a print publishing format for the official record, but which also powers debates.oireachtas.ie.

Soon after the site was up and running, however, these data feeds started to cause issues. The problems encountered are all outlined on the KildareStreet.com blog:

For reasons I cannot hope to explain, the Oireachtas has a production process for the Official Record which is bound by no formal timeframes, nor any published targets, nor apparently any guarantee that the material produced will be correct within a timeframe useful to anyone but historians.

Today, for the second time in a week, the official data from which we generate this web site has been released on the official website in a severely mangled manner. You can see at the time of writing that yesterday, the adjournment debate apparently contained over three hundred and fifty contributions, there were no written answers to questions, and the phrase “as of 01 May 2009” has been inexplicably promoted to the rank of “major heading”.

The Oireachtas official report printing company has once again mangled all the written answers from yesterday…They’ve now blown this three times in eight sitting days – not an impressive way for a recipient of public funds to deliver value, is it?

Our apologies — the official report is once again in a state of utter nonsensical garbage because someone’s published a debate XML file which can’t possibly even validate under their own rules…Stepping into an overly-specific technical domain for a moment, and to ask a question which only they and we understand: why —

  1. …do you use a DTD which permits you to enter Question elements under a ‘General Debate’ heading?
  2. Conversely, if the DTD isn’t broken and in fact doesn’t permit that, why aren’t you USING IT to validate your output?
  3. And since when was <table> a valid element to start a Debate section with?

We ask because these three points, if understood properly, would cover almost every single cockup you’ve made since we launched.

You won’t get your email alert today because the Oireachtas debates production system is garbage operated by people who don’t care about the quality of their work.

[June 26] You know what? I’m done being polite about this.

Every single day this week, the official report has been dripping with errors and stupidity. Just now they updated the file from yesterday and instead of simply adding the remaining debates, the new file destroys yesterday’s written questions in the exact same way that we keep pointing out.

Tuesday’s debate record was unparseably-broken until yesterday morning. Wednesday of this week is currently complete garbage (update: this was finally fixed on July 1st, a week after it was originally broken), and now Thursday’s stuffed as well.

There are three sitting days each week. This week they screwed up with all of them.

The comments above highlight the frustrations involved with the release of poorly formatted government  data. These data feeds are provided by a private company, but as Handelaar notes “the only thing which makes the official site work properly is having us shout at them loudly and in public.”

One of the Open Government Data principles requires data to be Machine Processable: Data is reasonably structured to allow automated processing. Unfortunately, the frequent formatting errors contained in the Oireachtas files make this machine processing very difficult. It therefore makes the Dáil less accountable for its actions, and more open to cynicism by those disenfranchised with the political process.

Reconnecting the Dáil with the people

Last month, the Dáil opened its doors to thousands of people as part of a family day. 8,000 tickets were made available to members of the public and these were snapped up within 24 hours. The Ceann Comhairle (Chairman of the Dáil) was quoted as saying the level of interest in the family day made a clear statement that people do wish to connect with their parliament, their politicians and the political process.

In order to facilitate this connection, however, the Oireachtas needs to ensure more competent processes are followed in the release of its data. The Irish Government should embrace the tenets of the Transparency and Open Government directive as outlined by President Obama. The principle of Transparency is outlined as:

Government should be transparent.  Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their Government is doing.  Information maintained by the Federal Government is a national asset. My Administration will take appropriate action, consistent with law and policy, to disclose information rapidly in forms that the public can readily find and use.

The success of Kildarestreet.com – an average of 3,000 pages viewed each day and hundreds of people signed up for email alerts – highlights the Irish public’s appetite for information about the activities of their elected representatives. Satisfying this demand through the timely release of data, can help citizens reengage in the democratic process, and hold their TDs more accountable for their actions. It has already uncovered some interesting trends in answers to questions, and can serve as a valuable resource for those investigating their TD’s performance come election time.

The movement towards Openness and Transparency in relation to government data has been steadily advancing throughout the developed world. The Whitehouse Open Government initiative demonstrates how governments are realizing the benefits of a more open and engaged public. As a corollary, Tim Berners-Lee says “2009 is the year for putting government data online”.

Kildarestreet.com is just one of a number of worldwide sites including Opencongress, TheyWorkForYou.co.nz and OpenAustralia, that seek to make the activities of their Parliament more accessible and transparent. It’s up to Government to ensure they provide the platform upon which to enable these important civic endeavors. The Government’s role should be to at least provide the raw data upon which others can create contextualized applications and mashups. Without this data, the public’s engagement with the political process will be less informed, thus reducing the accountability of those elected to serve us.

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