Holding Government Accountable One Click at a Time

“Laws are like sausages. You should never watch them being made.” This adage, generally attributed to Otto von Bismarck, rings true to anyone who has had the opportunity to watch Congress make public policy. Just tune into C-SPAN sometime for a taste.

Across the pond in England, a website, TheyWorkForYou.com (TWFY), aims to change this by offering a new service that allows users to watch archived BBC coverage of parliamentary debates and tag the video.

The tagging solves a big problem: there is currently no way to search the video to find the speaker or topic you are interested in. TWFY is crowdsourcing the work, allowing visitors to mark the moment in the video when a speaker begins by pressing a big red button. They call this activity "time-stamping" and provide incentives to compete with others by displaying the names of the top time-stampers and giving away promotional hoodies to the top time-stampers. The time-stamping synchronizes the video with the transcript and makes the video much more useful by allowing users to search the video according to their interests.

According to Wikipedia, “crowdsourcing is a neologism for the act of taking a task traditionally performed by an employee or contractor, and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people, in the form of an open call.” Crowdsourcing has been used to accomplish a variety of tasks big and small. For instance in the political context, the Democratic National Committe crowdsources the production of video by redistributing amateur video of McCain’s speeches for public remixing through FlipperTV in hopes of creating the next viral video.

Video tagging of all sorts has been around for sometime (see these proprietary platforms: Viddler, Gotoit, VeoTag, MovieChapterizer), but this is the first implementation I have seen that uses an open platform and public contributors to do the tagging. If one can tag video in order to synchronize text and video, as is the current iteration at TWFY, a modification of the code may allow the addition of comments and links. In the context of government, one can envision video of a Senator debating proposed legislation accompanied by an embedded PDF of the legislation with links to a background primer on the subject. TWFY's open platform allows for programmers to riff on their current setup to make this a reality.

I applaud the BBC and TWFY for their efforts to inform the citizens of England by using an open platform. I am a big fan of civic engagement. However, did the BBC plan on exploiting the economics of crowdsourcing (as in free labor)? Why didn’t the BBC, who apparently provided the initial funding for the TWFY project, provide TWFY with enough funding for them to create the programming language to do the synchronization automatically? Perhaps the developers at TWFY are planning on developing this feature or counting on an open source developer from the community to help make it happen.

The controversy surrounding the ethical and economic implications of crowdsourcing have been explored by others (see Jimmy Wales and Douglas Rushkoff), but what about the legal implications? What kind of license would this enriched media require? Who owns the finished product? The users who contributed dozens of hours of work, TWFY, the Parliament or the BBC?

The transcripts of parliamentary debates, called "Hansard," remain under Parliamentary Copyright and are licensed by TWFY. The licensing guidelines indicate that for most uses the license is free, but in some circumstances there may be a charge. If users could add links or embed files, perhaps a U.K. creative commons license would be a good idea? As a comparison, the work of the United States Government is not covered by copyright, including, among other things, federal judicial decisions as well as speeches of federal government officials given in the course of their employment.

I remain hopeful that this fantastic service by TWFY will provide more openness, transparency and access to government information. Time-stamping at TWFY is surprisingly fun and the parliamentary debates can be quite lively. The TWFY website indicates that about 60% of the available video has already been time-stamped. I guess watching the sausage get made isn't so bad after all.

(Jason Crow is a second-year law student at Boston College Law School and a CMLP Legal Intern.)


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Automation of legislative video is already available...

In the US, particularly in Washington State. The CSPAN of Washington State, TVW, records virtually every minute of the legislative process in Washington, and has a tagged, easily searchable database on its website. You can even clip video within their site.

I'm executive director of Knowledge As Power, a nonprofit organization which helps citizens track legislative information and communicate effectively with their legislators. As I announced at Personal Democracy Forum the other day, we're planning on launching a service in partnership with TVW which will place video content of events within personalized action centers for citizens, allowing you to see all video, transcripts, and text of legislation together and within context.

I think that TWFY's project is good in that it overcomes the problem of tagging, I do think that since auto-tagging via auto transcription is a much more effective use of time and resources. BBC should be tagging it's videos for groups like TWFY--it's not that hard.

Bringing People Together

Sarah -  Thanks for your comment. The resources and expertise provided by Knowledge as Power and the great coverage that TVW provides will complement each other well. I am sorry I missed your presentation at the Personal Democracy Forum (though I was able to watch David Witzel's video interview of you), the partnership between your organization and TVW should benefit the citizens of Washington state and can provide a model for other states to emulate.

As I alluded to in my post, the software capable of auto-tagging via transcript is likely a proprietary technology that has yet to be developed by the open source community. I imagine TWFY is holding out to be able to create the functionality on their own. My own experience working with open-source projects is that purchasing software from a retailer is tantamount to giving up and giving in - though outsiders may look on in puzzlement because proprietary software solutions often exist.

Do you or anyone know of another open source project that is working on this sort of functionality that could team up with TWFY?

I must remind myself, however, the technology is not that important. The real goals, to promote transparency and openness in government business and increase citizen participation, are being served by TWFY, TVW and others by bringing people together to be active in civic life.

Something you might not be

Something you might not be aware is that Hansard (the text we are working with at TheyWorkForYou) is an *edited* verbatim transcript: "a full report, in the first person, of all speakers alike, a full report being defined as one 'which, though not strictly verbatim, is substantially the verbatim report, with repetitions and redundancies omitted and with obvious mistakes corrected, but which on the other hand leaves out nothing that adds to the meaning of the speech or illustrates the argument.'".

So whilst I'm not sure exaclty what you mean when you refer to auto-tagging via transcript, I don't believe it to be possible in our case, it's simply not automatable. I also don't believe it's the BBC's job to manually mark up their video output, their job is creating the station to be broadcast on TV, which has its own priorities. :)

An example of what I was thinking: Rep. Kucinich on C-SPAN


I am glad that someone from TWFY chimed in and answered some of the questions I raised. Also, thanks for the interesting note on how Hansard edited (would one write "the Hansard" or just "Hansard"?). I noticed when I was tagging some video myself that the transcript had some minor edits that made the written version flow nicely.

So whilst I'm not sure exaclty what you mean when you refer to
auto-tagging via transcript, I don't believe it to be possible in our
case, it's simply not automatable.

I just meant that since proprietary solutions exist, as in, you can buy software that will do it for you, then at some point the open source community will come together and create their own version - a process I imagined TWFY may be considering developing. For an example of what I mean, see Representative Dennis Kucinich reading most of 35 articles of impeachment he brought against President Bush by following the link. Make sure your browser isn't blocking popups. Then click "show transcript" button and you can search the transcript, and click on its sections and the video will move forward directly to that segment. There doesn't seem to be a human behind this process, but some software doing the brunt of the work, likely a reasonably costly solution that the BBC could chip in the cash to purchase for you.

Thanks for your comments and keep up the good work over there.