Making Past Parliamentary Data Usable Through Crowdsourcing

Read Fotis Fitsilis’ text from the Hellenic Parliament based on his participation on LegisTech Series

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📌 This text is the result of the transcription of the panelist’s participation in Bússola Tech’s event


Today we’re going to discuss the parliaments of today and the parliament of the future, the so-called smart parliament approach. 


In order to discuss the parliament of today, one needs to have in mind what kind of challenges the parliament faces. There are no institutions with similar functions, and we are talking about the legislative function, the oversight’s function, and the parliamentary communication function, which could be related also to parliamentary diplomacy. 


These are the main sections of parliament. There are others and, of course, new functions developing and emerging, but let’s stick to them as the basic dimensions of parliament that need to be discussed, in order to see how parliaments can move forward in a seamless way. 


Parliaments are around for more than two centuries and for most of this time they have been using the same methods and approaches, when it comes to the procedures. There are plenty of theories and legislative techniques that have changed things, but essentially parliaments used paper to draft laws and bills in order for them to be enacted. This has slightly changed in the 80s and 90s, where digitalised documents have been developed, but in essence, the handling of laws has not changed. 


I would say that the same is true for the oversight function. The parliamentary questions, primarily the written ones, have not changed in essence much until recently and essentially the same is true for the greater parliamentary administration. 


The question here is about, in the advent of the 21st century, the necessary steps towards digital transformation that can be conducted, so that these functions first continue their role, and second about the possibility for men to structurally transform them, in order to strengthen the institution in order to make possible for the institution to evolve.


There have been in past years a series of new developments that were not around around 10 or 15 years ago, that make possible for parliamentary professionals, but also developers and other other scientists around parliaments, to fully digitalise parliamentary processes and the necessary documents that are generated by it. 


I would like to mention here two major breakthroughs. The basis is the development of a legal document standard, which is called Akoma Ntoso. This is a standard that is able to break down parliamentary documents into discrete and distinct elements that can be identified by other systems. For instance laws are being broken down in titles, in parts, in articles, in single passages, and also internal elements of the law can be tagged, or highlighted, so that the systems outside the parliament can identify these elements and perform operations on it. 


If one uses such standards and creates standardised documents, it has a profound effect in lawmaking, because it is possible to create open legal data. Laws are broken down in legal data, that are open, in the sense that any system in the world that speaks the language Akoma Ntoso can identify the same elements and compare them. Based on these operations, one can find more about the law, better inform citizens and stakeholders about how the law has been built and maybe more importantly, one may build systems that evaluate the implementation of the law, on how the law is performing. 


The second one are the tools that have been built to work with the standard and one very interesting tool is called LEOS – Legislation Editing Open Software, which is an authoring tool that can be used to write laws. The reason why this is important is because it is open source, so any organisation, be it the parliament or ministry, or any other governmental agency can use it, in order to draft legal documents and it can adjust the tool, so that it fits its purposes. 


Having these two elements, the tool on the one side and the structure language on the other, it does not mean by definition that it is a walk in the park for a parliament to utilise this, in order to restructure and fully digitalise its legislative process.


As it happens in many small and medium-sized parliaments, the resources are scarce and it is not easy to invest in research and development, in order to develop this kind of functionality, to utilise even existing tools, even if they are open source and make a proof of concept. 


Since I have been working in the Hellenic Parliament in the research service, it has been tough to draw resources in order to make this kind of system evaluations, so that our parliament can see where are the benefits from the use of such tools or where are the issues that need to be taken care of. That’s why we established an interdisciplinary team, which is called the Hellenic OCR team, and we have attracted people from the private sector, from academia, from NGOs and international organisations, on a volunteer basis, and we have put them to work together in order to develop this proof of concept, that is necessary for a parliament to start positively thinking about the case. 


Since this team was established in 2017, we had a number of successes in the creation and evaluation of such tools, amongst which was the development of the LEOS tool for our National School of Government. 


Before even testing these tools and approaches, we tried out in a laboratory environment, and we have proven that it is possible to adjust this tool. It was originally built for the European Commission Services and Agencies, and we have showcased that it is possible to transform it to make it work for the Hellenic Parliament. 


We have seen that such tools work and that they can transform the way a parliament makes laws and we have seen that one of the main benefits is that when you have drafted the law with such collaborative tools, that in essence you make it instantly open. We have seen that our innovative approaches on how to do that, for instance in the Hellenic Parliament, and we have built a parliamentary spin-off, where we have involved additional private and academia expertise, as well as other stakeholders and used it on a voluntary basis in order to build and maintain innovative digital solutions. 


The innovation here lies in the fact that parliaments usually lack the necessary expertise to conduct this kind of transformation in-house, so by definition involving external experts and bringing in knowledge that is usually not accessible by public institutions, like parliaments, this creates added value for the solutions that are tested.


The other innovative step is that the solutions we are envisaging and building are relying on state of the art standards, like Akoma Ntoso, or W3C standards, the new standards for the semantic web. What this means is that our final products and services have the potential to be not only reusable, but also by definition open for access and for reuse by citizens, third parties, governments and parliaments.


When we started this project, in the Hellenic OCR team, we said that we will try to have everything as open as possible. Our solutions are on github, we try to publish as much as possible. 


These strong approaches might present challenges for parliaments and for the parliamentary administration. We are pursuing a very aggressive approach, also based on the fact that all emerging technologies are having an equally aggressive path. It makes no sense to be extremely cautious, when almost daily or weekly new technologies arise. One way we figure out how to be able to screen as many new technologies as possible is by opening up our team to as many experts and parliamentary professionals as possible. Today, our team consists of more than 43 members. They are professionals from different backgrounds and from different parliaments, that might be legal experts, engineers, linguists or political scientists. It doesn’t matter what exactly one has studied in the past, the new tools and approaches need to be tackled as interdisciplinary and as parliamentary user-centric as possible, so that the end products and services are of maximum usage and usability for the inter-parliamentary users.


The challenges are significant. When we have showcased our example in the National School of Governance in Athens, we have seen that there is a huge lack of digital skills that needs somehow to be bridged. Multiple specified and customised courses need to be developed for parliaments in order for parliamentary professionals to adjust to the changing situation and to be able to acquire the new digital skills, not only to design and to help develop, but also to operate the new tools.


It is very difficult to predict the future and what kind of tools and approaches it will bring to parliaments. This is why we have started a global screening of the necessities of parliaments, such as what kinds of services might be necessary in future times. At the same time, we will try to develop and to approximate these needs with the development of new tools. 


Our goal is to meet somewhere in the middle, first to find out what kind of technologies are interesting for parliaments and then to develop proof of concepts, new tools and services that will match the future needs.

[header image source: unsplash] 

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