How to hack Parliament

Hacking Parliament might sound a bit drastic so I had better explain.

I mean hacking in the software sense (good) of making a new application from existing bits and pieces. Ah. In fact I am referring to the Parlyhack of a few weeks ago that I attended over the weekend of 16-17 November.

Hack events have been around a long time and there are when a group of software developers get together to ‘hack’ existing code, data and whatever they can find create new potentially valuable applications. It’s a kind of creative brainstorming for developers.

For example there is an annual event called Devfort where a group of developers spend a week of their own time (yes, they pay for themselves) locked away on an island creating a new website or application like this site of Nasa transcripts (spacelog) which is rather fab – take a look at Apollo 13 and see what was really said to Huston.

So what is Parlyhack then?

For the last three years the head of online services at Parliament has arranged a hack weekend where developers either work with either existing Parliamentary data or some new data is made available for the weekend.

The developers then hunker down for a day and a half to see what they can build. The results can be wacky, weird and wonderful. Here is a bit of background from Rewired state who often run these events.

So for example one of the best hacks was called Metabill which linked together data from Hansard and to show as much information as possible on a particular piece of legislation. Another app would send a daily email with a short profile of an MP, the messages being send in alphabetical order. Again all the data was copied ‘scraped’ from the Parliament website. And there were many others inventive hacks.

Ok so what is the point?

Well the point is that the event is used by Parliament to get ideas as to what kind of content and in what format the outside world might find useful. It can help highlight uses for content that had not orginally be considered by its creators. Its a hypercharged review of Parliament’s online content. Often developers say, if only you had formatted x differently we could have done something much better; or y was missing; you have too many pdfs. Etc.

So what happens after Parlyhack?

The head of online goes back to her colleagues who produce content and can suggest potential improvements to how they produce it. She also has a innovation fund to try and kickstart some of these useful changes which in the longer run will probably help all their users.

So this is how ‘hacking’ Parliament can be a force for the good and who would have thought that?

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