Open data and all that

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

16 Responses

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  1. Although I don’t have the stats at hand, videoing and streaming council meetings in Canada has increased interest in council decision making processes. Councils should be using this technology to help people understand what they do and how they do it. Not keep things closed and out of touch with the wishes of the electorate. Grrr

    Julian Tait

    September 27, 2010 at 12:55 pm

  2. at a more basic level – all council meetings use a PA system for mics and would be a very low cost option to record the audio to an mp3 and upload this to the web. there would be no need to put it on a council’s own website (at great expense) just stick it on a third party. maybe stick it in itunes.

    William Perrin

    September 27, 2010 at 1:02 pm

  3. This has been an interesting case to follow, and the argument that things can be edited out of context, seems to me to be weak beyond belief – does the council defend strict copyright on every single publication, press release and utterance of councillors and staff?

    The thing that gets me, however, is the allegation of political motivation. Of course there is political motivation. That’s why most councillors are there: they have specific political beliefs and stand on that platform. The sin here is not that one councillor was trying to illustrate how he was following through on his politics, it’s that other councillors and the council seem to be trying to stop him from doing it.

    James Cousins

    September 27, 2010 at 1:06 pm

  4. “Does this seem familiar? It should. It’s the same arguments being given against publishing raw data. ”

    Those are also (very similar to) the arguments given against televising parliament.

    Andy Mabbett (@pigsonthewing)

    September 27, 2010 at 1:23 pm

  5. I haven’t had as much time as I’d have liked to look into the whole shebang properly (on a personal note, having met Jason a few times in the past), and what I’ve followed has made me want to look into it more. The issue is pretty confusing and write-ups have generally been fairly simplistic in their coverage.

    Looking at the PDF report, for example, shows that the first two issues you quote above – lack of respect and copyright grounds – have been dismissed:

    “1.10 … the report finds that Cllr Kitcat did not breach the Code of Conduct in relation to treating others with respect and using council resources in accordance with the authority’s reasonable requirements; but did breach the Code in relation to using council resources improperly for political purposes.”

    …which in no way detracts from the rest of the post, but does show how tangled up the issues (and the accusations/judgement of each) are in this matter.

    There are, I gather, various rules around using council meeting resources to political gain, and I can see why these come up – for some reason, I’m inclined to think of review quotes for films and books: it’s very possible to take a snippet of content and a source, and the rest of the review. Most people won’t care about checking that the quote hasn’t been taken out of context, but reviewers *will* start to think about writing differently.

    In other words, the possibility for out-of-contextness *may* stifle full debate. And so rules about editing come in – precisely because there is a difference between “closed”, “fully open” and “partially obscured”. Implying interpretation is a powerful persuasive tool.

    But yes, I agree that this is the nature of democracy within a naturally-duplicatable network. OoC-ness happens every day and is pretty off-putting to anyone interested in actually finding out what *really* happened. Opening things up is needed, definitely – but in this case, the original is there for all to see, so would more openness actually help?

    Perhaps what we need is an “independent editing” function? Someone who can be trusted to filter long boring meetings into executive summaries, without losing the context and gist of them. A “context authority” if you want, in the same way that we have independent bodies to audit open data and ensure certain standards are maintained. (N.B. There are similar rules around not using data to mislead – many people *aren’t* actually allowed to use data in any way that they want.)

    In my mind, better linking is an important factor in all this – being able to reference something *in context* mixes the best of both worlds, and seems to work for academic papers, web links, etc.

    Hmm, maybe this should have been a blog post…


    September 27, 2010 at 1:35 pm

    • “Looking at the PDF report, for example, shows that the first two issues you quote above – lack of respect and copyright grounds – have been dismissed”.

      Absolutely, but the post was not (meant to be) about this. It was that by using something that the council had put on the web (the webcasts), Kitcat was using “the council’s IT facilities improperly for political purposes”. Not only is this nonsensical, I think James’s comment nails it — that’s democracy.


      September 27, 2010 at 1:53 pm

      • Totally agree, and aware I’m semi-playing devil’s advocate a little 🙂 But I think the comparison to text content stands in this case – copying a quote from a webpage is one thing. Copying the whole thing is another (and helps solve issues of the original document changing, but may also introduce new discrepancies). Generally people only do this for remixing and Freenet 🙂

        But linking to the original cite to provide comment on it is another “solution”, and one which is a) easy to do, b) provides a reference to the original “time” context (e.g. a meeting going on) and also the link’s source (webpage, organisation, etc). Both of these have value to both the linker and the linked.

        I’m not necessarily saying Jason was *wrong* or “more democratic” in what he did – more that, as someone that actually wants to find out more information *easily* in a *networked* public sphere, copying rather than linking isn’t always the most effective method.

        Assuming the council site doesn’t allow it, it would seem rather more useful to put the whole video on Youtube, and link to specific time points. One could probably build a whole content summary process round that. (I might actually watch my council meetings then 🙂


        September 27, 2010 at 3:12 pm

  6. Hang on, so a political person has used the proceedings of a political meeting for political purposes?

    I’m shocked.

    Simon Whitehouse

    September 27, 2010 at 1:44 pm

  7. And if a transcription of the meeting had been put online? Would there be so much hoohargh?

    Videos of council meetings are so lame, a bunch of talking heads – imagine a transcription were available… searchable, Google-able, listen to the .mp3 in you dead-time (mowing the lawn, driving, watching Masterchef with the wife, whatever…).

    If you want to impress me, extract meaning from council meetings – and push it into my conciousness.


    September 27, 2010 at 10:04 pm

  8. In June 2010, the new Government asked Martha Lane Fox to expand her role as UK Digital Champion advising how online public services delivery can help to provide better, and more efficient services as well as getting more people online. Martha Lane Fox ( could support getting open council meetings, open committees minutes to wider scrutiny, boosting hyperlocal sites and engaging people through local data democracy.

    David Pidsley

    September 28, 2010 at 9:23 am

  9. Not read all the comments, but would the cllr who posted the abridged ‘video’ clips done exactly the same with ‘written minutes’ in a press release?

    Spencer Wilson

    September 28, 2010 at 11:17 am

  10. The work done by MySociety on They Work For You (example: ) is exemplary; but then they’re tying (through crowd-sourcing) video to an existing, verbatim transcript (Hansard).

    Also, if videos are uploaded to YouTube, then, eventually, Google will caption them and make the captions searchable, and translate them:

    This technology is, of course, still in its infancy, so won’t solve our immediate needs.

    Andy Mabbett (@pigsonthewing)

    September 29, 2010 at 10:16 am

  11. My local council, Cambridge City Council, allowed the substantive elements of its meetings to be filmed for the first time recently.

    They’re not making it easy though; they’ve banned filming public speakers, banned panning the camera so the individual speaking can be seen and not allowed me to sit next to my camera during the meeting. I’ve reported on my experiences at:

    Richard Taylor

    October 27, 2010 at 12:52 am

  12. […] a comment » A couple of months ago, I blogged about the ridiculous situation of a local councillor being hauled up in front of the counc…, and worse, being found against (note: this has since been overturned by the First Tier Tribunal […]

  13. […] council meeting – see the full story here, video embedded below – following on from the simple suggestion I’d made a couple of months ago to let citizens video council meetings. I should stress that that attempt had been pre-arranged […]

  14. I was videoing council meetings in Osoyoos BC Canada and nearby Oliver. Oliver enforced a resolution prohibiting citizen video and Osoyoos put through the same resolution. I would shoot 2 minute clips with a very quick “stop Start” between. Very little was lost and any specific video could be later looked at. What they didn’t like was “I was editorializing too much” People could make comments on the videos. They didn’t have control of the video either.

    Example: Staff were looking into the per diem rates. They got comparison from other levels of government. What the citizens wanted to know was: How much a year do we spend. Take a lunch we do. Why so much out of town travel. Stay home. That kind of thing.

    The resolution prohibited video in any town facility. I had my own resolution to ignore theirs. They really didn’t like it when I went into their “open budget” meeting.

    I plan on running in the next election (may 14 2013) on a platform of total transparency. I have 1 video promise up on Youtube and will start doing more as soon as I do my press release.

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