For all its routine and formal trappings, Parliament remains a crucial engine of our democracy. And lots of its workings—votes, speeches, committees—take place in the open. But, too often, information that's technically available is difficult to find and use. This independent, non-governmental site aims to make some of that information more easily accessible.

Behind the curtain

Hi. I'm Michael. (You can reach me via e-mail.) This site is a volunteer, spare-time effort of mine. I built it because I think Parliament's goings-on are important—alternately fascinating, boring, and depressing, but important—and because I believe that public information should be meaningfully public, which today means shareable and computer-readable.

In building the site, I had no shortage of inspirations. In particular, TheyWorkForYou.com does wonderful things in the UK, and there are similar sites around the world. Thanks also to How'd They Vote, Canada's OG Hansard scraper and PoliTwitter.ca, whose API helps me keep up-to-date on MPs' use of social media.

Pitch in

Here's how you can help.

Programmers

This site is free software. We run on Python and Django. If you notice a bug or want to add functionality, patches are wonderful things. Reports and suggestions should go to our feedback forum, or e-mail. I've listed some ideas for projects. You're also very much encouraged to build your own projects on top of our code and data. We have a bare-bones API for Hansard transcripts, and I'm happy to add requested API functionality.

Graphic/Interface Designers

Design is crucial to making information accessible. This site is my amateur effort; suggestions and contributions are deeply welcome.

Everyone

Send suggestions and problem reports via our feedback forum or e-mail. Use our data. And encourage your representatives and communities to support open data.

And while this is emphatically a nonprofit project, we do have significant technical costs, so donations are much appreciated.

What Open means

Even if the battle's far from won, the case for transparency in government is clear: of course we should know how our representatives are representing us, of course we should be able to see what's being done with our tax dollars. But, as information and data become increasingly synonymous, making information available isn't enough. To be useful, it has to be usable. It has to be freely available, in a flexible digital format. It has to be open.

This idea—that governments hold valuable information and that it shouldn't be locked up but instead be freed for sharing and reuse for the common good—is called open data. It’s the one political cause this otherwise nonpartisan site promotes. And it’s a cause whose time has come. Since I created this site in 2010, open data has gone from a term that would simply confuse most politicians to something every party has a position on.

And that’s why we need to get it right. In 2011, Canada launched a federal open data program. But so far, it's a faceless organization with relatively little in the way of visible results, a pale shadow of its counterparts in the US and the UK. And a culture of digital openness has taken hold in only a few remote outposts of the federal bureaucracy.

When I started this site in 2010, the Parliamentary information I republish was all available online, but only as dense, long documents on the Parliament site. The distinction between document and data might sound dull and technical, but in an economy driven by information and computers, it’s absolutely crucial. Parliament's goings-on are structured data: a speech is made by a person at a given time, a bill has a status and a sponsor, and so on. A document, on the other hand, is just a big pile of words. To build this site from the documents that Parliament had made public, I had to construct a wobbly tower of rules—if it's a 14-pixel font, it's probably a person's name, as long as it's not within a table and it doesn't contain the words The, Some, One, or An, or Assistant—that took many days and more frustration to get right. And if Parliament had started to use a different font size, this site would have stopped working.

But there's good news: in the last year, Parliament has started to make some its data public, and I no longer need to use that wobbly tower for bills and speeches. Governments around the country, from BC to Toronto, have started promising open data programs. Statistics Canada has made much of its previously expensive data free. A Montreal nonprofit called Open North has shown how all sorts of useful applications can be built on government data.

If you’re interested in learning more about open data, take a look at powerhouse advocate David Eaves’ blog and Tracey Lauriault’s exhaustive list of resources. The CivicAccess mailing list is a gathering point for people advocating for, and building things with, open data. And the Open Knowledge Foundation pushes forward open knowledge of all kinds.