A simple demand: let us record council meetings

A couple of months ago we had the ridiculous situation of a local council hauling up one of their councillors in front of a displinary hearing for posting videos of the council meeting on YouTube.

The video originated from the council’s own webcasts, and the complaint by Councillor Kemble was that in posting these videos on YouTube, another councillor, Jason Kitcat

(i) had failed to treat his fellow councillors with respect, by posting the clips without the prior knowledge or express permission of Councillor Theobald or Councillor Mears; and
(ii) had abused council facilities by infringing the copyright in the webcast images

and in doing so had breached the Members Code of Conduct.

Astonishingly, the standards committee found against Kitcat and ruled he should be suspended for up to six months if he does not write an apology to Cllr Theobald and submit to re-training on the roles and responsibilities of being a councillor, and it is only the fact that he is appealing to the First-Tier Tribunal (which apparently the council has decided to fight using hire outside counsel) that has allowed him to continue.

It’s worth reading the investigator’s report (PDF, of course) in full for a fairly good example of just how petty and ridiculous these issues become, particularly when the investigator writes things such as:

I consider that Cllr Kitcat did use the council’s IT facilities improperly for political purposes. Most of the clips are about communal bins, a politically contentious issue at the time. The clips are about Cllr Kitcat holding the administration politically to account for the way the bins were introduced, and were intended to highlight what the he believed were the administration’s deficiencies in that regard, based on feedback from certain residents.
Most tellingly, clip no. 5 shows the Cabinet Member responsible for communal bins in an unflattering and politically unfavourable light, and it is hard to avoid the conclusion that this highly abridged clip was selected and posted for political gain.

The using IT facilities, refers, by the way, not to using the council’s own computers to upload or edit the videos (it seems agreed by all that he used his own computer for this), but the fact that the webcasts were made and published on the web using the council’s equipment (or at least those of its supplier, Public-i). Presumably it he’d taken an extract from the minutes of a meeting published on the council’s website that would also have been using the council’s IT resources.

However, let’s step back a bit. This, ultimately, is not about councillors not understanding the web, failing to get get new technology and the ways it can open up debate. This is not even about the somewhat restrictive webcasting system which apparently only has the past six month’s meetings and is somewhat unpleasant to use (particularly if you use a Mac, or Linux — see a debate of the issues here).

This is about councillors failing to understand democracy, about the ability to taking the same material and making up your own mind, and critically trying to persuade others of that view.

In fact the investigator’s statement above, taking “a politically contentious issue at the time… holding the administration politically to account for the way the bins were introduced… to highlight what the he believed were the administration’s deficiencies in that regard” is surely a pretty good benchmark for a democracy.

So here’s simple suggestion for those drawing up the local government legislation at the moment, no let’s make that a demand, since that’s what it should be in a democracy (not a subservient request to your ‘betters’):

Give the public the right to record any council meeting using any device using Flip cams, tape recorders, frankly any darned thing they like as long as it doesn’t disrupt the meeting.

Not only would this open up council meetings and their obscure committees to wider scrutiny, it would also be a boost to hyperlocal sites that are beginning to take the place of the local media.

And if councils want to go to the expense of webcasting their meetings, then require them to make the webcasts available to download under an open licence. That way people can share them, convert them into open formats that don’t require proprietary software, subtititle them, and yes, even post them on YouTube.

I can already hear local politicians saying it will reduce the quality of political discourse, that people may use it in ways they don’t like and can’t control.

Does this seem familiar? It should. It’s the same arguments being given against publishing raw data. The public won’t understand. There may be different interpretations. How will people use it?

Well, folks that’s the point of a democracy. And that’s the point of a data democracy. We can use it in any way we damn well please. The public record is not there to make incumbent councillors or senior staff memebers look good. It’s there to allow the to be held to account. And to allow people to make up their own minds. Stop that, and you’re stopping democracy.

Links: For more posts relating to this case, see also Jason Kitcat’s own blog postsBrighton Argus post, and posts form Mark Pack at Liberal Democrat voice, Jim Killock,  Conservative Home, and even a tweet from Local Government minister Grant Shapps.


Drawing up the Local Spending Data guidelines… and how Google Docs saved the day

Last Thursday, the Local Public Data Panel on which I sit approved the final draft of the guidelines for publishing by councils of their spending over £500 (version 1.0 if you like). These started back in June, with a document Will Perrin and I drew up in response to a request from Camden council, and attracted a huge number of really helpful comments.

Since then, things have moved on a bit. The loose guidelines were fine as a starting point, especially as at that time we were talking theoretically, and hadn’t really had any concrete situations or data to deal with, but from speaking to councils, and actually using the data it became clear the something much firmer was needed.

What followed then was the usual public sector drafting nightmare, with various Word documents being emailed around, people getting very territorial, offline conversations, and frankly something that wasn’t getting very far.

However, a week beforehand I’d successfully used a shared Google Spreadsheet to free up a similar problem. In that case there were a bunch of organisations (including OpenlyLocal, the Local Government Association and Department for Communities and Local Government) that needed an up-to-date list of councils publishing spending data, together with the licence, URL and whether it was machine-readable (Basically what Adrian Short was doing here at one time – I’d asked him if he wanted to do it, but he didn’t have the time to keep his up-to-date.) In addition, it was clear that we each knew about councils the others didn’t.

The answer could have been a dedicated web app, a Word document that was added to and emailed around (actually that’s what started to happen). In the end, it was something much simpler – a Google spreadsheet with edit access given to multiple people. I used the OpenlyLocal API to populate the basic structure (including OpenlyLocal URLs, which mean that anyone getting the data via the API, or as a CSV would have a place they could query for more data), and bingo, it was sorted.

So given this success, Jonathan Evans from the LGA and  I agreed to use the Google Docs approach with the spending guidelines. There are multiple advantages to this, but some are particularly relevant for tackling such a problem:

  • We can all work on the document at the same time, messaging each others as we go, avoiding the delays, arguments and territoriality of the document emailing approach.
  • The version tracking means that all your changes, not just those of the saved version are visible to all participants (and to people who subsequently become participants). This seems to lead to a spirit of collaboration rather than position-taking, and at least on this occasion avoided edit-wars.
  • The world can see the product of your work, without having to separately publish it (though see note below)

You can also automatically get the information as data, either through the Google Docs API or more likely in the case of a spreadsheet particularly, as a CSV file. Construct it with this in mind (i.e. 1 header row), and you’ve got something that can be instantly used in mashups and visualisations.

    Important note 1: The biggest problem with this approach in central government is Internet Explorer 6, which the Department of Communities & Local Government are stuck on and have no plans to upgrade. This means the approach only works when people are prepared to make the additions at home, or some other place that have a browser less than 9 years old.

    Important note 2: Despite having put together the spending scoreboard spreadsheet, we were hopeless at telling the wider world about it, meaning that Simon Rogers at the Guardian ended up duplicating much of the work. Interestingly he was missing some that we knew about, and vice versa, and I’ve offered him edit access to the main spreadsheet so we can all work together on the same one.

    Important note 3: A smaller but nevertheless irritating problem with Google Documents (and this seems to be true of Word and OpenOffice too) is that when they contain tables you get a mess of inaccessible HTML, with the result that when the spending guidance was put on the Local Public Data Panel website, the HTML had to be largely rewritten from scratch (by one of the data.gov.uk stars late at night). So Google, if you’re listening, please allow an option to export as accessible HTML.


    Introducing OpenCharities: Opening up the Charities Register

    A couple of weeks ago I needed a list of all the charities in the UK and their registration numbers so that I could try to match them up to the local council spending data OpenlyLocal is aggregating and trying to make sense of. A fairly simple request, you’d think, especially in this new world of transparency and open data, and for a dataset that’s uncontentious.

    Well, you’d be wrong. There’s nothing at data.gov.uk, nothing at CKAN and nothing on the Charity Commission website, and in fact you can’t even see the whole register on the website, just the first 500 results of any search/category. Here’s what the Charities Commission says on their website (NB: extract below is truncated):

    The Commission can provide an electronic copy in discharge of its duty to provide a legible copy of publicly available information if the person requesting the copy is happy to receive it in that form. There is no obligation on the Commission to provide a copy in this form…

    The Commission will not provide an electronic copy of any material subject to Crown copyright or to Crown database right unless it is satisfied… that the Requestor intends to re-use the information in an appropriate manner.

    Hmmm. Time for Twitter to come to the rescue to check that some other independently minded person hasn’t already solved the problem. Nothing, but I did get pointed to this request for the data to be unlocked, with the very recent response by the Charity Commission, essentially saying, “Nope, we ain’t going to release it”:

    For resource reasons we are not able to display the entire Register of Charities. Searches are therefore limited to 500 results… We cannot allow full access to all the data, held on the register, as there are limitations on the use of data extracted from the Register… However, we are happy to consider granting access to our records on receipt of a written request to the Departmental Record Officer

    OK, so it seems as though they have no intention of making this data available anytime soon (I actually don’t buy that there are Intellectual Property or Data Privacy issues with making basic information about charities available, and if there really are this needs to be changed, pronto), so time for some screen-scraping. Turns out it’s a pretty difficult website to scrape, because it requires both cookies and javascript to work properly.

    Try turning off both in your browser, and see how far you get, and then you’ll also get an idea of how difficult it is to use if you have accessibility issues – and check out their poor excuse for accessibility statement, i.e. tough luck.

    Still, there’s usually a way, even if it does mean some pretty tortuous routes, and like the similarly inaccessible Birmingham City Council website, this is just the sort of challenge that stubborn so-and-so’s like me won’t give up on.

    And the way to get the info seems to be through the geographical search (other routes relied upon Javascript), and although it was still problematic, it was doable. So, now we have an open data register of charities, incorporated into OpenlyLocal, and tied in to the spending data being published by councils.

    Charity supplier to Local authority

    And because this sort of thing is so easy, once you’ve got it in a database (Charity Commission take note), there are a couple of bonuses.

    First, it was relatively easy to knock up a quick and very simple Sinatra application, OpenCharities:

    Open Charities :: Opening up the UK Charities Register

    If there’s any interest, I’ll add more features to it, but for now, it’s just a the simplest of things, a web application with a unique URL for every charity based on its charity number, and with the  basic information for each charity is available as data (XML, JSON and RDF). It’s also searchable, and sortable by most recent income and spending, and for linked data people there are dereferenceable Resource URIs.

    This is very much an alpha application: the design is very basic and it’s possible that there are a few charities missing – for two reasons. One: the Charity Commission kept timing out (think I managed to pick up all of those, and they should get picked up when I periodically run the scraper); and two: there appears to be a bug in the Charity Commission website, so that when there’s between 10 and 13 entries, only 10 are shown, but there is no way of seeing the additional ones. As a benchmark, there are currently 150,422 charities in the OpenCharities database.

    It’s also worth mentioning that due to inconsistencies with the page structure, the income/spending data for some of the biggest charities is not yet in the system. I’ve worked out a fix, and the entries will be gradually updated, but only as they are re-scraped.

    The second bonus is that the entire database is available to download and reuse (under an open, share-alike attribution licence). It’s a compressed CSV file, weighing in at just under 20MB for the compressed version, and should probably only attempted by those familiar with manipulating large datasets (don’t try opening it up in your spreadsheet, for example). I’m also in the process of importing it into Google Fusion Tables (it’s still churning away in the background) and will post a link when it’s done.

    Now, back to that spending data.


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