MySociety completes crowd-sourced video markup

Congratulations (hardly for the first time, of course) to the MySociety crew: in less than two months, it looks like their community of volunteers has completed the work to timestamp the 42,019 video clips supplied to They Work For You by BBC Parliament, covering the entire 2007-8 parliamentary session. Hero status is rightly accorded to Abi Broom, responsible herself for more than 20% of the effort (!)… but it’s interesting to see a few familiar names in the list of ‘top timestampers’.
Of course, the time is ticking down to the start of the new Parliamentary Session, when the work starts all over again. Tom Steinberg tells me they get ‘only’ 3-400 new clips per day, so keeping up to date shouldn’t be too hard. Unless Abi gets sick, obviously. 🙂
Quite seriously, this is a fantastic achievement. The goodwill of a community of people, coupled with a trivially simple tagging tool, achieved something which – realistically – neither speech recognition technology, nor the IT budgets of Hansard and BBC Parliament (combined?) ever could. And it goes without saying, it’s largely down to the MySociety ‘brand’ of charitable activism: if Parliament had asked people to do this, do you think many would? (Not that there should be much anguish in Millbank about this invasion of ‘their’ territory; I bet Parliamentary people will be the ones most grateful for the service.)
About 13% of the video clips were tagged anonymously; my guess is that, like me, many of those were people who were searching for something on TheyWorkForYou, came across an as-yet untagged video clip, and decided to ‘leave a tip’. For me, the magic of the tool was the fact that it made this bit so easy. But that means 87% were tagged by people who went to the trouble of registering – much more than I would have guessed, although admittedly, 7 people were responsible for over 50% of the tagging.

Govt comms: better, but years behind

Flicking across the news channels tonight, I bumped into recorded coverage of Wednesday’s Lords Communications Committee. You had the BBC’s Frank Gardner and Sky’s Tim Marshall, plus a couple of other senior journalists, giving their frank opinions on the state of media, politics and government. I only caught the last few minutes; it looks like I missed coverage of the earlier session with Nick Robinson and Adam Boulton.
The session closed with each ‘witness’ being asked: is government communication getting better or worse, and how does it need to improve? Fascinatingly, the two TV correspondents referenced the world of multi-platform, multi-media, online-driven news.
Frank Gardner told the committee: ‘I definitely sense a desire to be helpful. [But] they are still in about 1985, when it comes to being in tune with the modern, multimedia environment we work in. We live in a fast-moving media environment. Government departments generally are far too slow – unnecessarily.’
Tim Marshall, never one to mince his words, agreed that things were ‘getting better since 2004, because things were pretty bad before that. The flow of information is much better, putting things on the internet, the Prime Minister’s conferences being televised, Lobby being on the record – these are all very positive things. But there are still not enough professional people [in media operations]. It’s people passing through for two years, sometimes they don’t want to do it.’
Tim then quoted an email from an unnamed colleague, who had recently spoken to a conference of 60 government press officers. ‘I got the distinct impression they are several years off the pace.’ ‘We in the media have had to embrace the blogosphere, all this stuff,’ Tim said in conclusion. ‘We’ve had to, because it’s survive or die. It’s not like that in government press offices, and I don’t think they’ve quite understood 2008, and the multimedia platform.’
So, to any press officers who happen to be reading: it isn’t just the geeks saying this now; it’s the journalists you’re there to serve. They’re telling you – politely, positively – that you aren’t serving them satisfactorily. You need to play catch-up.
PS: I’d never have found this if I hadn’t been channel-hopping at the right moment. The fact is, some of the most insightful and intelligent broadcasting in the UK is happening at weekends on BBC Parliament – and it’s a crying shame that we can’t find a better way to get it out there. The iPlayer is a start (and yes, this recording will thankfully be on iPlayer ‘soon’ – Monday I guess). But surely it’s crying out to be a TED-style podcast series?

Hansard back to 1880s

One of those ‘hidden gem’ websites: Hansard 1804-2004, which currently features the text of parliamentary business back to 1885. It’s not absolutely comprehensive, and the scanning isn’t error-free, but it’s amazing to have all this data at your fingertips. It’s very interesting to note how the site’s been set up:

SkunkThis site has been sponsored by Parliament in order to test and demonstrate user interfaces for historic data, certain functionality and for other exploratory work. … The time and resources used to generate this site have been and continue to be paid for by the House of Commons and the House of Lords. This site is not part of the official Parliament site, nor is it intended to become part of the official site in its current form. This site is supported only on a best efforts basis.

I couldn’t resist searching for ‘internet’, to see when the term made its debut on the floor of the Commons. The site quotes a 1919 reference to ‘mortgage internet’, but I guess that’s a scanning oopsie; there are several 1960s references which are also clearly dated wrongly. But the first proper reference seems to have been from Emma Nicholson (now an MEP), in February 1990, talking about computer hacking. You can tell it’s old-school, because it’s spelt INTERNET out in capitals. There’s also a 1974 reference to the theft of ‘a Ford Transit van loaded with Internet radio sets valued at £2,750’ – but it can’t be, can it?

Why Parliament doesn't like YouTube

LibDem MP Jo Swinson raised the subject of parliamentary video clips going on YouTube, during questions to the Leader of the House last week. You can see it below.
Helen Goodman’s response is enlightening: video material isn’t allowed to be hosted on a site where it can be searched or downloaded ‘to ensure that it is not re-edited or reused inappropriately for campaigning or satirical purposes’. In this day and age, it’s ridiculous…
…as is proven, of course, by the very fact that I can post the above video clip courtesy of TheyWorkForYou‘s new ‘mechanical Turk‘-style manual markup initiative, and BBC Parliament’s recordings.
It’s another MySociety project where my overwhelming feeling is disappointment: it’s sad that it has to come to this. And unfortunately, where Amazon can offer cash, MySociety can only offer warm feelings. But they seem to be making startling progress.
By the way… the list of signatories to Jo Swinson’s early day motion is interesting, with quite a bit of Northern Irish interest, and almost nothing from WebCameron’s Tories.

Stop what you're doing and sign up

I’m not sure I need to waste my time explaining why you need to go to TheyWorkForYou and sign up to MySociety’s campaign to Free Our Bills – or rather, to have Parliamentary data marked up in mashup-friendly XML. Just compare ‘proper’ Hansard to TheyWorkForYou, and imagine the same process being done on all Parliamentary paperwork.
You may or may not be interested in the intricacies of XML parsing, or even in the uglier workings of the Houses of Parliament. But the fact is, TheyWorkForYou has become a living case study for what we want from e-government. It’s the best-practice example everyone quotes. And if they can persuade/force Parliament to work with them, it sets a valuable precedent for everyone else.
Quick update: Tom Steinberg has been in touch to say it’s not a petition, it’s ‘an action list, proper online campaign style’. Duly noted.
And when you’re done there… log into Facebook (come on, you remember) and join the campaign to allow clips of Parliament on YouTube. Useful in itself, but helpful to MPs who want to show their constituents what they’re up to. My thanks to Lynne Featherstone for the tipoff.