Posted by Loren Mullane on behalf of the DataBC Team
At the federal, provincial, and territorial level, the Queen’s Printers are the government publisher and printers of record, including legislation – the statutory law enacted by our elected representatives. They have a storied history, with many in operation for over 100 years.
Over the years, they have innovated to carry out their responsibility to provide citizens access to governing laws. This includes launching websites, such as BC Laws where citizens can find all of Province of B.C’s acts and regulations.
Queen’s Printers continue to innovate…
Members of QPAC from across Canada were in town for their annual conference. Last Saturday, QPAC co-hosted a hackathon using legislative data with the Open Data Society of BC, a community group of developers passionate about open data. The developers presented the applications they created at the hackathon to the QPAC conference attendees Tuesday. Their work was proof that when given the opportunity, developers can create easy-to-use applications that provide citizens improved access to legislation.
Prior to the hackathon, the Queen’s Printer of British Columbia built an application programming interface (API) to serve the legislative data out in Extended Markup Language (XML), a machine-readable data format that is easy for developers to work with. We wrote about this in a blog post last week.
For the purpose of the hackathon, the Queen’s Printer of British Columbia also gave the hackathon participants limited rights to reproduce B.C. legislation. Most of the information the Queen’s Printers produce is under Crown copyright, meaning no other party has the right to reproduce the information without consent.
The chance to work with legislative data brought a strong turnout at the hackathon, with many coming for the first time to such an event. Attendees included developers, public servants, graduate students from the University of Victoria, and representatives from the Canadian Legal Information Institute.
A number of applications were developed at the hackathon and later showcased to the QPAC conference. One application was LexView. Developed by Marce-Andre Morrissette, LexView adds a table of contents to legislation so a person can quickly navigate between sections of a lengthy act or regulation. This is an improvement over most web-based legislation where it is necessary to scroll through the pages to find the desired section.
It is common for one section of legislation to reference another section of an act or regulation. Another application showcased, and developed by Morrisette, makes viewing other sections of legislation instant. Using the application, when a reader scrolls over a hyperlink, the application sends a query to the API created by the Queen’s Printer of BC, and then instantly provides a pop-up containing the section of the other referenced section of legislation.
The next application showcased was YouRule. A self-confessed newbie to legislation, the developer Herb Lainchbury wanted to make legislation more accessible to the average person. He built YouRule, a mashup of legislation with the functionality of the widely popular YouTube. The application sends queries to the API, then scans the B.C. legislation to find any changes in wording. If it finds a change, it publishes the changed section of legislation on YouRule in a track changes format so it is easy to see what changed. Similar to YouTube, users can rate and comment on changes. They can also subscribe to various channels. For example, subscribe to the Environment channel to receive notifications when environment related legislation is changed.
The final application developed was Law Server developed by Kevin McArthur. A tool for developers it uses a standard Uniform Resource Locator (URL) schema for legislative data, and allows the easy translation into different data formats.
The QPAC conference was an excellent demonstration of what is possible. When you provide legislative data in machine-readable formats with fewer restrictions on reproduction, developers can then work their coding skills to produce applications which help citizens connect with the legislative process.
The outcome of the experimentation remains to be seen. But we are optimistic that it will lead to new ways to engage citizens with the laws that govern them.