One of the key differences between the UK’s national parliament and its local governments is that Parliament produces a written record of what gets said – Hansard.
This practice – which has no actual legal power – still has a huge impact on successful functioning of Parliament. MPs share their own quotes, they quote things back to one-another, journalists cite questions and answers, and every day TheyWorkForYou sends tens of thousands of email alerts to people who want to know who said what yesterday in Parliament. Without freely available transcripts of Parliamentary debates, it is likely that Parliament would not be anything like as prominent an institution in British public life.
No Local Hansards
Councils, of course, are too poor to have transcribers, and so don’t produce transcripts. Plus, nobody wants to know what’s going on anyway. Those are the twin beliefs that ensure that verbatim transcripts are an exceptional rarity in the local government world.
At mySociety we think the time has come to actively challenge these beliefs. We are going to be building a set of technologies whose aim is to start making the production of written transcripts of local government meetings a normal practice.
We believe that being able to get sent some form of alert when a council meeting mentions your street is a gentle and psychologically realistic way of engaging regular people with the decisions being made in their local governments. We believe transcripts are worth producing because they show that local politics is actually carried out by humans.
The State of the Art Still Needs You
First, though – a reality check. No technology currently exists that can entirely remove human labour from the production of good quality transcripts of noisy, complicated public meetings. But technology is now at a point where it is possible to substantially collapse the energy and skills required to record, edit and publish transcripts of public meetings of all kinds.
We are planning to develop software that uses off-the-shelf voice recognition technologies to produce rough drafts of transcripts that can then be edited and published through a web browser. Our role will not be in working on the voice recognition itself, but rather on making the whole experience of setting out to record, transcribe and publish a speech or session as easy, fast and enjoyable as possible. And we will build tools to make browsing and sharing the data as nice as we know how. All this fits within our Components strategy.
But mySociety cannot ourselves go to all these meetings. And it appears exceptionally unlikely that councils will want to pay for official transcribers at this point in history. So what we’re asking today is for interest from individuals – inside or outside councils – willing to have a go at transcribing meetings as we develop the software.
It doesn’t have to be definitive to be valuable
Hansard is the record of pretty much everything that gets said in Parliament. This has led to the idea that if you don’t record everything said in every session, your project is a failure. But if Wikipedia has taught us anything, it is that starting small – producing little nuggets of value from the first day – is the right way to get started on hairy, ambitious projects. We’re not looking for people willing to give up their lives to transcribe endlessly and for free – we’re looking for people for whom having a transcript is useful to them anyway, people willing to transcribe at least partly out of self interest. We’re looking for these initial enthusiasts to start building up transcripts that slowly shift the idea of what ‘normal’ conduct in local government is.
Unlike Wikipedia we’re not really talking about a single mega database with community rules. Our current plans are to let you set up a database which you would own – just as you own your blog on Blogger or WordPress, perhaps with collaborators. Maybe you just want to record each annual address of the Lord Mayor – that’s fine. We just want to build something that suits many different people’s needs, and which lifts the veil on so much hidden decision making in this country.
Get in touch
The main purpose of this post is to tell people that mySociety is heading in this direction, and that we’d like you along for the ride. We won’t have a beta to play with for a good few months yet, but we are keen to hear from anyone who thinks they might be an early adopter, or who knows of other people who might want to be involved.
And we’re just as keen to hear from people inside councils as outside, although we know your hands are more tied. Wherever you sit – drop us a line and tell us what sort of use you might want to make of the new technology, and what sort of features you’d like to see. We’ll get back in touch when we’ve something to share.
I’m a local Lib Dem activist in Reddish, Stockport.
I’d really like to get involved, I’m sure the information would be useful for my blog and local campaigning and help residents as well to understand what goes on in council
I am interested in becoming involved in this project. I currently tweet from Colchester Borough Council Cabinet, Planning and Full Council meetings, as well as
How will we avoid the unneccessary duplication of two (or more) people working to transcribe the same meeting?
Very positive. I’m interested in being involved.
As ex-cllr on unitary council. I’ve tried tweeting live from meetings when I can.
Not just principal councils though. There are c 10,000 parish and town ‘local’ councis that can have a significant impact on thier area. Covering them as well would be wonderful … if much harder.
As a Labour Councillor on St.Albans District Council I think anything that increases public involvement/understanding of local govt can only be a good thing.
I would like to get involved in this. Annette
Wonderful idea. As a Councillor in a parish about to embark on a Neighbourhood Plan, a process which will depend on community support and participation, I can see how your project could be extremely useful. Please count me in.
[…] Transcripts mySociety is seeking councillors council officers…Unofficial Transcripts: mySociety is seeking councillors, council officers, local activists and hype… […]
[…] council officers, local activists and hyperlocal bloggers interested in Hansards at the local levelUnofficial Transcripts: mySociety is seeking councillors, council officers, local activists and hype… […]
As a local campaigner for Save the Children, I am connected to the local political platforms and would really like to get involved with this idea at the local level.
I am also interested in how we might use a local Hansard script to develop useful blogs and other formats which get important information to local residents; adapting formats and content to the audience.
As a well established local blogger (Since 2006) I’d be delighted to participate. I also manage formby.n0tice.com a locally focussed platform but developed and owned by The Guardian.
This sounds like an excellent idea.
I have not ben elected yet but follow council bussiness quite closely – Brighton and Hove live cast their meetings and I have tried live blogging in the past.
If the initial transcripts could come from the video cast (or recording thereof) I would be happy to be involved.
I have also done some synching on ‘public whip’ in the past.
I’d be interested in this too
Like Sean Brady, I also manage notice boards on the n0tice platform .
I’d certainly be interested to be in the loop and get involved in testing some technologies.
Very interested in this – both in terms of local to Wrexham and the concept in general!
This would be a great way of getting more disabled people involved in politics. Please contact Independent Living Centres and the national disability organisations and ask them to tell their members about this exciting new initiative.
Count me in. Great concept. A lot of what really affects us day to day never gets reported and local papers have neglected councils for years.
I would love to help. I am enthusiastic about anything that might lead towards a more politically involved/aware democratic society. As a postgrad politics student at Manchester Uni perhaps I’ll be able to find more eager individuals amongst the student body – I shall spread the word!
Would like to help.
In principle yes. I have done transcription before, from tapes/CDs of MR interviews and conference presentations, and would not underestimate the difficulties having seen Southwark Council in action, Camden and Westminster planning/development control committees live and via web cast, and licensing sub-committees. Trying in real time without stenographer type skills and techniques, or short-hand to write up later, is a big one!