The following guest post is by Ricardo Lafuente and Ana Carvalho, who work as Manufactura Independente, a libre graphics and design research studio based in the city of Porto, hopping between the fields of design, hacking and art. They are also members of the OKF’s Working Group on EU Open Data.
Around a year ago, Hacklaviva (a hackerspace in Porto) hosted a couple of talks around the subject of technology for citizen empowerment. The featured discussions revolved around subjects such as governmental transparency, visual mapping of information, and converged on the challenge of narrowing the gap between citizens and public institutions through thoughtful use of technology.
The ensuing discussion sparked the idea of a group effort to begin thinking this challenge, and we began holding regular meetings which we decided to call “Porto Transparency Hackdays”. The general motivation for this was the dearth of open data efforts in Portugal, with a few individual efforts. Thanks to a diverse crowd, gathering people coming from backgrounds such as journalism, social sciences, arts and design, the Transparency Hackdays became places of exchange and experimenting with ideas around the general theme of public information accessibility.
A general consensus came up around where to start: the Portuguese Parliament. There is a wealth of information available on the Parliament’s website; unfortunately, it’s made almost inaccessible thanks to the proprietary web frameworks and awkward document formats (PDF and bad HTML). We set as our first goal to scrape this information, convert it to structured and open formats, and release it so that we and others could build interesting projects based on that.
This task is still ongoing; so far, we’ve made good process in processing general MP information, and are well on our way to finish a parser for Parliament session transcripts. All work has progressed through hack sessions, as well as a 2-day hackathon (joining the world Open Data Day initiative), all hosted by Hacklaviva. To mark the occasion of Document Freedom Day, we did our first public release of our datasets.
One project that began on that hackathon and is now in Beta stage is http://demo.cratica.org, a frontend to access this data. There, we focus on MP info and Parliament transcripts, providing a simple and straightforward interface to allow anyone to go through it. We got wonderful feedback, especially regarding the contrast with the official Parliament site, where it’s rather hard to reach Parliament transcripts. The bulk of our effort has actually been categorising, correcting and structuring transcript data; thanks to the work done in the Transparency Hackdays, we had solid datasets for MP and caucus information that we integrated in Demo.cratica. The Demo.cratica code is free software released under the AGPL.
These are the most important sections of the website:
Our main focus was to simplify access to information, and at the moment you can reach any page in 3 clicks or less. We find that information design is a major concern if we are to get people interested in reading and discussing how their parliament works. Our goal is to make it easy — and hopefully interesting — to read what’s going on in Parliament. There are still many glitches and details that we’re working on, and once we’re done with that we’ll want to approach government and other public entities about this project and the importance of open data.
The principles of Demo.cratica closely echo the general directions from the Transparency Hackdays:
- Free as in freedom: We benefit hugely from free software tools, so we give back everything under free software and free content licenses.
- No restrictions: As a corollary to the previous point, everything should be accessible to everyone — no subscriptions or premium content.
- No funding: Money tends to complicate this kind of projects. Therefore, we carry them through without depending on any compensation from anyone, doing it for the love and ensuring an independent perspective. This does not exclude applying for project financing in later stages; however, we shy away from ideas that require money to get started, and just work on the things that we really want to see happen. This principle is drawn from Hacklaviva, our hackerspace which runs with no money or funding at all.
- No bias: The goal of the Transparency Hackdays and projects is not to denounce, but to make public; our general agenda is open data, even though most (if not all) participants have their own political perspectives. We have an informal rule not to discuss politics while working, something which usually ends up in real-life flame wars which, though relevant, tend to waste precious time.
There is also another great project by an accomplice of this group based in Lisbon, this time around public state spending: DespesaPública.com.
Right now, the Transparency group is off for holidays, but we’re beginning to cook other open data projects. If you happen to be interested or involved in open data projects in Portugal, we’d love to hear from you, so check the Transparency Hackdays Porto website and join our mailing list!