Information Revolution: Civic-Minded Hackers Want to Bring Parliament into the 21st Century, Writes Becky Hogge

Article excerpt

On the day that Jack Straw unveiled his plans for the constitutional renewal of Britain, a group of politically inclined geeks had their own campaign to announce--one that has the potential to do just as much for democracy in Britain. The campaign is called "Free Our Bills" and its founders, the inimitable civic hackers MySociety, subtitle it thus: "The Nice, Polite Campaign to Gently Encourage Parliament to Publish Bills in a 21st-Century Way. Please. Now."

This is the first campaign to be run by TheyWorkForYou.com, the non-partisan charity that brought us the accessible parliamentary record; WriteToThem.com, the one-click way to get in touch with your elected representatives; and, latterly, the one-stop shop for Freedom of Information requests WhatDoTheyKnow.com.

Until now, MySociety has more or less single-handedly defined online political engagement in the UK. Now, it wants parliament to publish bills--the draft laws that we pay MPs to fashion--in a different format. At present, just before a bill goes off to the printers, it is converted into HTML, the lingua franca of the worldwide web, so it can be displayed on the parliamentary website. (HTML stands for hypertext mark-up language.) But MySociety would like parliament to use a much more powerful mark-up language to publish bills. That language is XML, and the X stands for extensible.

Extensible mark-up language is deeply flexible, in essence allowing those that use it to create their own schemas for classifying information. …