Information revolution

Civic-minded hackers want to bring parliament into the 21st century

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, the non-partisan charity that brought us the accessible parliamentary record;, the one-click way to get in touch with your elected representatives; and, latterly, the one-stop shop for Freedom of Information requests

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. If parliament employed an XML schema, it could turn its two dimensional bills into glorious three-dimensional structures, incorporating information about who proposed them, who amended them, when they did so, and what other bills and acts of parliament each piece of proposed legislation refers to. Crucially, they could let outside bodies, such as MySociety, extend the XML schemas in order to build services around the bill-making process that would make it easier for the average citizen to get a handle on what on earth it is that parliament does all day.

What sort of services could MySociety offer? It could email you every time a bill mentions something you've told the site you're interested in. It could tell you how your MP is interacting with a bill as it travels through the legislative process. It could create Wikified bills that allowed people to leave notes and comments. These are just the things MySociety has thought of already: the beauty of its suggestion is that it would open the door to anybody who wanted to innovate around the way parliament publishes information, to bring citizens closer to the way parliament makes laws.

Written constitutions, bills of rights and flag-waving proposals are all very well - but no matter how unsexy XML-enabled parliamentary bills may look at first glance, they are just as crucial to the governance of Britain.

Becky Hogge is a writer and technologist. She was formerly the technology director of award-winning current affairs website, and Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, a grassroots digital civil liberties organisation.

This article first appeared in the 07 April 2008 issue of the New Statesman, British jihad