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Poplus network targets "colossal" waste of citizen software reinvention



Network targets "colossal" waste of citizen software reinvention

A global network of bodies developing software to boost transparency in politics could help tackle the current "colossal" waste of money with different countries building the same tools time and again, the network's founder has told

Poplus is a collaborative network of non-profit "e-democracy" organisations founded last year by UK-based civic software group mySociety with Chilean non-profit foundation Ciudadano Inteligente (Intelligent Citizen). Last week the network launched a new free open source tool - SayIt, a means of publishing transcripts of Parliamentary and other national and local political meetings.

Tom Steinberg, founder and director of mySociety, told this week that the goal for Poplus is to become an independent legal entity and expand its work across the globe, growing beyond its two founder members to embrace all interested parties, including other UK groups.

"We want to expand the pool of people writing code, creating an open source community or confederation building technology to help make citizens more powerful", Steinberg said. "Right now what we see is colossal amounts of time and money wasted as people in different countries create the same thing time and time again.

"To take £10,000 each time and spend it developing the same thing is just terrible for everyone. So the idea is to see more tools getting into the hands of more people and making more of a difference. We want people to reuse and recycle technology that is collaboratively built."

The new SayIT tool is intended to help people convert dry, indigestible civic transcripts into more easily readable and reusable formats, Steinberg said. It can be used by national, local or community organisations in three ways: by running it as a standalone website; embedding it seamlessly into existing websites; or by through an API (application programming interface) allowing users to pull text or data out from transcripts to analyse or turn into emails, tweets or other formats.

"Transcripts often exist in formats like pdf or html but they are often not very good - they need converting and cleaning up", he said. "And in some areas like British local government, for instance, there are no transcripts at all.

As its launch under the Poplus brand shows, the tool was built with international use in mind, Steinberg said: "We want it to be used by people who are trying to hold powerful people to account in different contexts around the world." Accordingly, one of its first live deployments is set to be unveiled shortly as a new version of South African Parliamentary transcripts to be published by a parliamentary monitoring body in that country, he said.

At the moment, while Poplus is publishing guidance for use of the tool, the creation of SayIt transcripts from other formats does require programming skills, Steinberg said. However there is a pool of volunteer developers who are keen to help civic projects worldwide, and the network plans to offer a matchmaking service to join volunteer programmers with potential projects. "We would love to hear from people."

Soon, however, the plan is to help people without any technical skills to create and adapt their own transcripts. "Part of phase two in a few months' time will be to develop software to help people create transcripts more quickly and easily in the first place", he said. "We want to attack the assumption that it is too expensive and too difficult to make transcripts where they don't exist at all."

Other open source software tools already released by Poplus include MapIt, a web service which makes it easy to find out which administrative area covers any particular geographical spot; and PopIt, a tool to make it easy to maintain lists of politicians and their basic biographical information.

Pictured: Section of a SayIt transcript: the actor Hugh Grant is sworn in to give evidence to the Leveson Inquiry

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