countculture

Open data and all that

Posts Tagged ‘councillors

A simple demand: let us record council meetings

with 16 comments

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.

Written by countculture

September 27, 2010 at 12:46 pm

Linking hyperlocal blog posts and councillors: a simple solution

with 10 comments

At last Saturday’s Talk About Local unconference, I chucked out an idea and problem I’d been playing with for a few weeks: how to show links to hyperlocal site blog posts about a given councillor, committee, meeting or what-have-you. We’ve got pages on over 8000 councillors over at OpenlyLocal and it would be good to show links to stories about them when they are written about by hyperlocal sites.

The solution I’d come up with was pretty simple, but seemed like it would have legs, and more to the point be easy to use: the pingbacks that WordPress and many other blogging systems send out (unknown to most users) when they link to another website. A pingback is a very short message to say: hey, I’ve linked to this page on your site from this blog post on my site.

Normally unless the thing you’re linking to is another blog (in which case it often appears in the comments), the pingback is ignored, but it doesn’t have to be. So my idea was to set up a pingback server on OpenlyLocal so that if you linked to a councillor, committee, meeting or poll (possibly soon candidates and documents if the interest is there), we could then link back to the piece (together with its title and few words of excerpt).

As with the OpenlyLocal widget, I got the excellent Philip John of the Lichfield Blog and JournalLocal to test it out once I’d built it. He updated three recent posts about Councillor David Smith, the departing leader of Lichfield council, with links to the OpenlyLocal page about him, and this is the result:

Related articles about councillors on OpenlyLocal

Thus your readers get links to more info about the councillor, meeting, committee etc, and you get more links and Google juice back to your site (it also acts as a loose webring for hyperlocal blogs covering the same area). One extra point, this service will only list pingbacks from approved entries in the Hyperlocal Directory. That way, we don’t have to worry about spamming from non-hyperlocal sites. As ever, comments welcome below.

Written by countculture

April 22, 2010 at 4:40 pm

Tweeting councillors, and why open, connected data matters

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Cllr Tweeps twitter directory of UK councillors closes

A couple of days ago I heard that the rather excellent CllrTweeps website was closing down. At its heart, CllrTweeps was a directory of councillors on Twitter, matching them up to council and party. My first thought was, wow that’s a shame to let that all that accumulated data go to waste.

The second was, wouldn’t it be great to put it on OpenlyLocal as open data, then not only would it be available to everyone via the API but it would also link the twitter accounts not just to the council, but also the ward, committees and so on.

So I dropped CllrTweeps a quick note, and Dafydd and James, the guys behind CllrTweeps, were well up for it. Within less than 48 hours, they’d sent me the data, agreed to make it open data, and I’d matched the first batch against the councillor records already on OpenlyLocal. What’s more, as a bonus, they’d also been collating info on councillor blogs, and so we could add that too.

Why is all this important — after all there are other pretty good sites listing councilors on twitter (although I’m not sure they’re as extensive as the CllrTweeps list)? It matters for the same reason as it was worth doing the open data Hyperlocal Directory (which is going gangbusters).

The  point is not who is maintaining the list — whether it’s twitter accounts or hyperlocal sites. What matter is whether the information is open for reuse by hyperlocal sites, bloggers, mashups, or anybody else and whether that information is it able to be connected to other bits of information, or is it — like the government data we often criticise — locked up in its own silo, not able to be matched to or combined with other information.

There’s a few tweeks we’re going to adding over the next couple of weeks, but for now if you’re a tweeting councillor (county/district/borough for the moment; parish and town councillors soon), let us know by tweeting to @OpenlyLocal with the hashtag #ukcouncillors (e.g. like this) and either the URL address of your OpenlyLocal page or your council.

Even better, you’ll automatically be added to the twitter list of UK local councillors we’ve started (see below). Finally if you have a blog and you include the URL address of that in the tweet we can add that to the info on your OpenlyLocal page.

List of UK local councillors who tweet

p.s Because the twitter accounts on OpenlyLocal are open data, there’s obviously no reason why they can’t be combined with other such listings. Hopefully we can get this arrangement to be reciprocal ;-)

Written by countculture

February 13, 2010 at 12:37 pm

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