What can Open Data do for Parliament?

By Ben Worthy

Last week the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy reported. Among its recommendations were that Hansard, the Register of Members’ interests and all bills should be released as Open Data by the end of 2015 (see Recommendation 31 here). But what is open data and, more importantly, what does it mean for Parliament?

Put simply, Open Data is about publishing government data in a way that can be used by others- ‘re-usable form’ or ‘machine readable’ as it’s called. As a buzzword, it sits alongside terms like ‘transparency’ and ‘Big Data’ as a symbol of the good things governments and other bodies are doing with information technology. So Open Data includes publishing, for example, details of local government spending or a whole host of other information contained on the UK data portal from deprivation indices and Statistics on Obesity, Physical Activity and Diet to the wonderfully named (and very important)  Lower Layer Super Output Area (LSOA) boundaries.

But what can all this data do for Parliament?

Westminster is in the process of opening up the information it holds via its own data site with datasets on constituencies, registers of interests and even the names of Peers.  The basic idea is that all this information can be used to find out new things, either by searching or matching different pieces of data. As an example, start-up Mastodon C identified millions of pounds of potential savings through an analysis of NHS prescription use.  So opening up interest registers could allow us to map who is working where and even know more, for example, about outside work or potential conflicts of interest (could it be linked to a site like whoslobbying for example?). Opening up Hansard could offer up a wealth of data about MPs’ activity and even their influence over the legislative process.

Parliament is already seeking to turn legislation into Open Data-see this commitment to bringing all legislation up to date by the end of 2015. This offers a powerful means of understanding legal and political developments-you can use this prototype search engine to search and analyse words used in legislation over time (try ‘immigration’ or ‘terrorism’ to see the recent trends).

Not only can analysis find out new patterns or hidden things, it can also lead to the development of new tools and applications. It is hard to predict what exactly will come out once data is published but it is the unexpected developments that make Open Data exciting. This handy scale created by the Open Knowledge Foundation uses Treasury data to tell you where your tax money goes and Open Data has also been used to create the Great British Public Toilet Map. There could be many innovations from Parliament’s data: an app to tell you what your MP has said on a certain issue? Graphics of MPs and their financial interests over time?

As an example of what can be done with Parliament’s data, mySociety recently asked users of its site to rate whether Ministers answered Parliamentary Questions over time. When put together, this gave us an insight into how often government ministers actually answered questions (or, to be strictly accurate, how often the public felt they did) between 2004 and 2013 as well as which departments were most and least ‘slippery’. This rather brilliant twitter update tells you whenever someone from within Parliament updates or changes Wikipedia entries-someone recently amended an entry on Alexis Tsipras and someone else corrected a timeline of the Roman Empire.

So data can have all sorts of unexpected applications. This is not to say Open Data can change Parliament all by itself. As I explain here about George Osborne’s idea for ‘tax letters’, it depends on who does what with the data and how or if it is seen, understood and interpreted. But letting others analyse and look over data can have all sorts of unexpected effects. ‘Opening up’ data is the first step in a process of technological transparency. I’m not sure what you can do with Peers names and MPs’ constituency data but I’d certainly like to find out.

Ben Worthy is a Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck College, University of London. He teaches Parliamentary Studies and Digital Politics and also has a blog on Freedom of Information and Open Data.

Image: opensource.com CC BY-ND

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