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. ®