A Useful Fiction by Patrick Hannan

Sometimes I feel as if I’m always playing catch-up.

This book “A Useful Fiction“, which came out last year, has just brought me reasonably up-to-date with devolution of the United Kingdom, particularly some of the finer details which I’d missed.

It has many good insights into the idea of Britain and its democracy, or rather democracies. The cover picture is a Union Flag with some serious-looking cracks in it, so you get the general idea.

I like Patrick Hannan’s scattershot style. He doesn’t resist a few cheeky observations about Blair, Brown, other politicians, Prince Charles, etc. He has some fun with the subject, which is pretty important if you’re talking about devolution and suchlike. That said, he’s fairly even-handed and journalistic about it.

Read it before it gets out of date! It’s published by Seren.

It turned out to be Patrick Hannan’s last book. Here’s an obituary of Hannan written by Meic Stephens.

Hacking or faking a wiki history for good purposes

I want to utterly hack the wiki format because I don’t think it’s been fully explored.

I’d like wiki software into which I can manually insert fake edits. I’d like to write the history in arbitrary order and set the dates myself. (Usually the dates are automatic.) I love the history!

Why? The history is a really useful way of representing the progression of a document.

Here’s one application. Lots of documents change and it might be useful to show their development in this fashion. In the UK, bills are discussed in parliament, they are edited then they sometimes become acts which are the basis of law. Very few normal people actually follow the process. A wiki-style history might help their understanding.

There’s a similar process at the Welsh Assembly and we certainly need help understanding what happens there.

There are also famous documents like the USA constitution which might be fun or historically interesting to represent in a wiki fashion. Imagine being able to see prohibition as a literal 18th amendment to the wiki and it being repealed by the 21st amendment.

As well as the democracy stuff, there might be journalistic applications of something like this. Representing important documents in different time-based ways.

This idea strikes me as somewhat “obvious”. (It was inspired by a comment in a video interview with Matt Mullenweg about open source.) Has it been done before?

I might have a go, there are many open source wiki software systems. For instance MediaWiki or DokuWiki could be adapted to do this. There are also document comparison programs, maybe I just need to do it as a set of documents which can be compared.

Maybe this intersects with what Google Wave can do, I haven’t tried it yet.

I use Google Docs every day now and it’s obvious that that has borrowed heavily from wikis. I’d struggle to go back to emailing attachments back and forth.

Google have two products called wiki – SearchWiki and Sidewiki – and neither of them are really wikis! But Google Docs are proper wikis. If you haven’t tried Google Docs, try it.

I’m thinking of other documents that change over time, which could be wikified. Like chessboards and images of your dog’s face.

My own face is a wiki edited by time. My body is a wiki, edited by beer and curry.

Do you care about Wales? Can you code? Fancy helping TheyWorkForYou then?

Below is some full background to this, but in summary TheyWorkForYou are looking for volunteer coders interested in working on Welsh Assembly data. If that’s you, please join the new discussion list and let’s figure out how to do it.

If you don’t know TheyWorkForYou then take some time to familiarise yourself. It’s a well established site taking parliamentary data and presenting it in a queryable form. It’s free, loaded with information and very useful indeed.

The whole thing is maintained by mySociety who are world class at this sort of thing.

Have a play and see what you can glean about your MP or issue of choice. The search function allows you to subscribe by email (or better still, RSS feed) to notify you immediately whenever something you care about is discussed.

This is all very well for the UK parliament but the Wales section of TheyWorkForYou is currently looking very bare, containing only the following text.

We need you!
It’d be fantastic if TheyWorkForYou also covered the Welsh Assembly, as we do with the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Scottish Parliament, but we don’t currently have the time or resources ourselves — in fact, both those assemblies were mainly done by volunteers.

If you’re interested in volunteering to help out, please get in touch!

So yes, Wales is the only constituent part of the UK which doesn’t have its parliamentary data available on TheyWorkForYou.

There is nothing preventing us, it’s purely because nobody’s stepped up and done it.

As a quick explanation of the work that needs to be done: Welsh Assembly proceedings and transcripts are already available on the web from the official site. But they’re effectively raw dumps – of speeches and other data. It’s almost impossible to get useful insights about members’ voting records. It provides no option to subscribe to notifications that a phrase was used. Apart from a very basic and clunky site search function, all the insights are locked in. You could do a human-powered research trawl through the records, but that starts to get a bit unwieldy for normal people. It feels like the preserve of experts and not really like proper democracy.

Most of TheyWorkForYou’s engine is already built. In the words of Matthew Somerville at mySociety, the work now is to “parse the official report of the Assembly into structured machine-readable data to feed into TheyWorkForYou, along with member information for the Assembly. This will need programming skills, I’m afraid.”

So if you know anything about data structures or programming, why not apply that knowledge for the good of everyone? Join the discussion list for now as we’ll be figuring out how to tackle it.

Any given Assembly Member who does his or her job properly would surely encourage the kind of scrutiny that TheyWorkForYou could bring. You might be wondering why nobody at the Welsh Assembly has added the necessary features to allow their data to be queried. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt this time. Maybe they don’t always intend to obfuscate and hide this stuff. It’s just they’re not up to speed with any better ways of doing it. You might be able to help them! And the people of Wales!

I’m not naive enough to think that all problems can immediately be solved by opening up this information. Neither will it be enough to get every voter running to the polls once the information is available. All manner of things can go wrong in the democratic process. But if your thing is data, there is a clear problem there and maybe that’s the part of the scene you can help with.

In Wales we have a good selection of knowledgable, principled and often witty political bloggers. I’m not one. But I can help resource the conversation in the party political domain by opening up the possibility of insights from the data. It will be a step towards better accountability among our representatives. Let’s hope it does clear a pathway to some possible solutions.

If you’re not a coder, you could make a donation to mySociety or spread the word.