“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.)