UK.gov urged to adopt web-friendly legislation format
'We can't let you parse XML, Dave Cameron'
Digital democracy crusaders at Mysociety.org have won Tory backing for their campaign for legislation to be released in a web-friendly XML-based format.
Mysociety MP accountability project TheyWorkForYou.com has launched the public drive after failing to convince parliamentary IT chiefs in private that publishing bills as easily parsed, annotated, and searched files would be cheap and good for democracy.
Yesterday, Conservative leader Dave Cameron backed the call via his 2.0tastic Webcameron video channel. He said: "I think this is an important campaign. People should be able to see what parliament is doing, what legislation means... publishing bills in a way that works on the internet makes good sense."
At the moment, legislation is typically published electronically in PDF or HTML formats. That makes it more difficult for Mysociety, a non-partisan charity, to take advantage of opportunities offered by the web to track how parts of law are applied in court, for example.
Westminster's resistance to the idea has now prompted the "Free Our Bills" campaign.
The Free Our Bills website explains the frustration: "We had meetings, and heard encouraging words. We wrote a proposal on what they should do, explaining the merits. We wore suits and polished our shoes and used long words to make them feel comfortable. We met lots of nice people who really want Parliament to get better at this stuff. And then we got nowhere."
Among a host of innovations, Mysociety hopes to use up-to-date legislation formatting to provide the public with email alerts when a topic they are interested in is mentioned and help them track what amendments are put forward by their own MP.
The charity reckons implementing an XML-based publishing system would cost about £10,000. It would then need a member of IT staff to administer it. "Five thousand people work in Parliament too, over 250 in the computers bit, so we really think they can afford this," Mysociety wrote.
There are technical details of how it could work here. When the text of a bill is completed, it would be copied to a server outside the parliamentary network. A script on the server would parse the text into the basic XML structure Mysociety has designed. A civil servant would then be notified automatically, and would manually check the markup.
He would then approve the web-friendly formatting and publish it to the net for Mysociety or anyone else to use however they want. ®
This is an excellent idea in principal, one of the biggest political problems today (in my opinion) is this idea of stealth democracy. The practice of passing bills and laws serrupticiously, deliberatly discouraging media coverage or not disclosing the details until the last minute.
If more ordinary people got actively involved in the political process in this country, then its obvious defects would become obvious to all, and I've not doubt we'd see marked change.
XML does not equal structured data
@ Anonymous Coward - Two things. Firstly, XML does not structured data make. You can put unstructured stuff in XML. Specifically, Bills and Amendments are not currently published with the way they amend each other encoded in a structured way. Any internal XML that they come from is document publishing XML i.e. Basically visual markup. It isn't structured storage of the proposed law XML. If I'm wrong, post up one of the internal XML files somewhere to show me that I am! It would be fab if I am!
Secondly, that OPSI and the SLD publish Acts is irrelevant to the campaign. We're talking about Bills and Amendments - proposed laws. This is so that people can scrutinise them before they are passed. Really important stuff. We want to make sure that new laws are good quality.
Thirdly, you may note that the campaign page http://www.theyworkforyou.com/freeourbills/ itself doesn't mention XML. We only mention it briefly on the technical details page http://www.theyworkforyou.com/freeourbills/techy . XML has nothing to do with this campaign - XML is just a light layer. Doesn't mean much - it is no more interesting to say structured data is in XML than to say it is encoded with 8 bits per byte. What matters is consistency of format, reliable unique identifiers, encoding of all required structural information.
Finally - just to say that I think the recent improvements to the bill pages on parliament.uk are fantastic, and that the release of the Statute Law Database is fantastic. Well done to everyone in Government who is working on those things, and every power to them to do more similar things in the future.
(I work for mySociety)
£10k does seem hopelessly naive. Possibly if done by actual human people who actually know what they're doing, but this is the *government* we're talking about.
More likely they'd outsource it to IBM or similar, who would stick a couple of zeroes onto the budget, then do exactly the same thing but with an army of salesmen and middle-managers cluttering up the place.
The fact that it's already published in XML is, of course, irrelevant. After all, solving a problem that's already been solved is (marginally) less likely to go tits-up.
Mine's the one reeking of cynicism...