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Making public information accessible
The campaign by Speaker of the House Wade Mark to make Parliament more computer literate and accessible is a welcome one. The Speaker has wisely seen that the traditions of this cornerstone of governance can be lubricated by the careful application of information technology upgrades.
In August 2011, this country hosted the 10th triennial conference of the Commonwealth Hansard Editors Association and had invaluable exposure to the state of the art in Hansard recording technologies and practice. Mr Mark immediately committed to speeding up access to Hansard transcripts and turning the dry archive of Parliamentary proceedings into a more open tool of transparent governance and accountability.
While Parliamentary proceedings are televised, making Hansard available in near real time promises another level of engagement with the day to day governance of Trinidad and Tobago. The Speaker of the House has introduced technology more directly in Parliament by replacing stacks of paper with digital documents on iPads, itself a small but important change in the way politicians interact with the data they must review and reference.
A companion building to the Red House that would be home to administration and records facilities could be tasked with both digitising historical documents and ensuring that current Parliamentary proceedings are transmitted via the Internet as Hansard transcripts and streaming audio and video feeds. Some proposed technologies are easy to implement.
Senate President Timothy Hamel-Smith has suggested introducing large screens to display the clauses and amendments of bills as a supplement to the reading of the documents. Others will be more technical and require greater levels of security. In April 2012 a hacker replaced the home page of Parliament’s website with one bearing a warning.
On Friday, Mr Mark offered updates on the technology based projects underway. By the end of 2012, paper use is expected to drop by half and the Speaker hopes to host Hansard online, with unverified quotations available within 24 hours of a debate. It’s to be hoped that this effort at improving access to public documents sparks greater government interest in using ICT to deliver more information that’s owned by the public to citizens.
Since it formally came into force in 2001, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) has been legislation honoured more in the declaration than in practice. Beyond declarations of state enterprise corporate structures, getting information out of public bodies has proven to be a continuing challenge.
As it’s structured now, the website for the FOIA is set up as a gatekeeper for public data, with information carefully tucked away on one side and request documents on the other. There’s no reason why foia.gov.tt should not host the data from state enterprises that the act requires be placed in the public domain. It doesn’t, because that’s the mindset it was created to continue.
Too much information gathered for public use is kept under reflexive lock and key or filed in ways that make citizen access difficult. Mr Mark is offering an example that others in public office should be keen to emulate.
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