The Oireachtas great leap backwards: it’s not just about

Read this first: Why it matters that the Oireachtas just killed I was going to comment on Simon McGarr’s blog post but the comment grew long enough to merit a post on my own very occasional blog.

I worked in the Oireachtas as a Parliamentary Assistant between 2005 and 2007. At this time there seemed to be a bit of a push behind “eDemocracy” and I was aware of efforts to ensure the provision of acts, bills and debates in structured formats. The grand vision seemed to be that the authoring, amendment and publication of all data related to the Oireachtas would ultimately be compatible with its exposure to the public as structured data. This was very much a work-in-progress at the time, and legacy systems were still centre-stage, in particular the little-loved Lotus Notes.

My understanding of the workflow then and now is that Oireachtas debate records are inputted into Lotus Notes initially and this is the format in which they are first made available to members and staff. Prior to this summer’s changes, they were then parsed into XML files from which the Oireachtas Debates web site was generated. The raw XML files were also publicly available, from which was generated. Theoretically anyone could use these XML files to provide web interfaces to debates but as far as I’m aware is the only site to actually have done so.

The process of converting the raw Lotus Notes records into XML appears to have been outsourced, either to Cahill Printers or Propylon. Propylon certainly created the XML schema and authoring system and their web site claims they “manage and publish the Verbatim Debate records of both houses in multiple formats”. However this useful site by Leo Bollins, who is the Principal of the eDemocracy Unit of the Oireachtas, suggests that Cahill Printers does the actual conversion.

Mark Mulqueen, Head of Communications for the Oireachtas, confirmed to me on Twitter that the recent changes to the site were designed to achieve efficiencies by ending the outsourcing of “a large amount of work involved in debates. That’s where a saving arises.” I asked him if this meant that Propylon were no longer managing the debate records and he replied, “Yes, I can confirm that to be the case. Using existing resources we will provide access to debates more quickly”.

So it appears that the Oireachtas has decided to save time and money by eliminating entirely the stage in their workflow that parsed raw debates records into XML. This stage has been replaced with a (presumably automated) process that generates web pages from Lotus Notes. It’s easy to see how somebody with little appreciation of the value of providing open public data in a structured format could have viewed this stage as a costly luxury, and its elimination as a simple and obvious “efficiency”. It’s particularly disappointing, however, that nobody in the decision-making process seemed to be aware of how much of a backward step this “efficiency” would represent. As John Handelaar of told The Irish Times, “We are replacing 2012 with 1995 overnight”.

The great promise of open data is that it breaks the one-to-one relationship between those who produce data and those who provide services on top of that data. If members of the public want to search or manipulate the Oireachtas records in particular ways, they don’t have to wait for the Oireachtas itself to produce the necessary tools, they can use third-party tools where available, or even build their own. The Houses of the Oireachtas, in their search for efficiencies, have reinstated this one-to-one link, and the public are now entirely dependent on their staff to produce services on top of the debates records. At present this amounts to a keyword search facility that currently produces an “internal server error”. This is not good for the public, and it’s not good for the management of the Oireachtas either.

The standard response of the Oireachtas authorities to the large number of TDs and Senators who have raised the issue is that they want to meet with John Handelaar to try and resolve the issue. That’s the sort of reply that will satisfy most members for the time being, but it reduces the issue to a question of the interface between the Oireachtas and one individual web site (albeit the only web site that has done anything useful with the Oireachtas data). A properly-briefed TD or Senator should be pursuing the issue as a generic open data question: why has the Oireachtas apparently taken such a huge step backwards in its provision of public data in a modern, clean, structured format?

A further pedantic point is that it’s important that queries on this issue are directed to those responsible, i.e. the Houses of the Oireachtas Commision. This Commission, made up of the Ceann Comhairle, Clerk of the Dáíl and a number of TDs and Senators, manages the business of the Oireachtas independent of the government. Its chair is the Ceann Comhairle, Sean Barrett, and his office seems to be the most obvious first port of call.

Phil Hogan: blaming the last guy

A recent Mail on Sunday interview with Phil Hogan, the new Minister for the Environment, is discussed on the Cedar Lounge Revolution. The interview contains a number of attacks by Hogan on his predecessor, John Gormley, for example:

“On his own portfolio, Mr Hogan claims he inherited ‘a dysfunctional department’ from his predecessor, John Gormley. He accuses the former Green leader of ‘badly damaging’ Ireland’s reputation at EU level. ‘There was an enormous amount of legacy issues left to me, including 31 court rulings against Ireland from the European Court of Justice. He allowed them to fester and drag on for the last couple of years. ‘There was a huge amount of procrastinating with the result that we have no waste policy, no water policy, no reform of politics and local government and a damaged international reputation. ‘I also inherited a considerable difficulty in the processing of administration of foreshore applications which was preventing a lot of renewable energy projects, ironically, from being developed, which in turn had implications for the Green economy.’”

I’m not without sympathy for Hogan, as it must be a shock to take office and learn the full extent of Ireland’s failure over the decades to properly implement the European environmental legislation to which it has signed up. However his determination to lay it all at John Gormley’s door needs to be challenged. For the record, the number of EU infringement cases against Ireland decreased by a third during John Gormley’s time as Minister, so Hogan’s charges on that score are entirely baseless. If he can achieve the same in the next 3.5 years he’ll be doing well.

As for “badly damaging Ireland’s reputation at an EU level”, when it came to implementation of environmental legislation Ireland had no reputation to damage. Gormley held regular meetings with successive EU Environment Commissioners on the specific issue of Ireland’s legacy of cases and gave his personal commitment to closing off as many cases as possible. A number of cases which were very close to the stage where fines were to be sought against Ireland were closed, saving the state millions.

If I were feeling mean-minded, of course, I could dig out a series of parliamentary questions from Fine Gael TDs asking the Minister to ease up on the implementation of this or that directive.

The criticism on the processing of foreshore applications is even more unfair, given that John Gormley began the process of modernising a consent process that hadn’t changed substantially since the 1930s. He only assumed responsibility for foreshore licensing in 2010, and significant strides were made in putting in place a transparent process for assessing these applications, in parallel with the development of new foreshore legislation (which Hogan will presumably continue to progress). Prior to 2010 the function had been in the Department of Agriculture, which transferred over a massive backlog of applications to the Department of the Environment in 2010. I think any applicant will confirm that the transparency of the process increased greatly following the transfer.

Finally, I have to wonder what the staff in the Department think of his claim that he inherited a “dysfunctional department”.

Proportional Representation: Simon Jenkins misses the point repeatedly

For the day that’s in it, here’s some dreadfully ignorant rubbish from Simon Jenkins on Proportional Representation.  He completely ignores the existence of non-list-based forms of PR, he ignores the fact that horse-trading and deal-making exists within parties and not just between them, and even bizarrely claims that the Germans, Danes and Italians “plead with Britain to stick with first-past-the-post”.

More importantly, as is common is this type of apologia for a voting system that is broken by design, he completely fails to ask the question, is first-past-the-post actually just?  Is it right to allow the majority of the votes cast to have no influence whatsoever on the formation of government?  Is it fair that only voters in marginal constituencies matter?  It’s been well established that there is no perfect voting system, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t make a judgement on whether a system is fair or not, based on the balance of the various desirable attributes it satisfies.  Surely fairness should be at least as important a consideration as “strong government” or “the constituency link” or whatever other dubious pleasures FPTP is supposed to provide.

Keats and Chapman

Don’t even bother reading the below unless you’re familiar with Myles na gCopaleen’s Keats and Chapman stories.  I was moved to write this by the discovery that Google only records two hits for the concluding pun, although I would have thought it was quite an obvious one.

During a spring sojourn in the south of France with Chapman, Keats conceived a powerful affection for a local beauty. The object of this amour fou, however, was a sensible girl of good upbringing who had been warned off poets in general, and Keats in particular. No matter how thick he laid it on, the young lady remained unmoved. His entreaties were invariably met with a polite but emphatic “non“. Unused to rejection, Keats met each “non” with renewed determination to succeed, resorting to ever more desperate schemes to break through his loved one’s hauteur.

As spring turned to summer, and Chapman threatened to transplant the poet back to London for the sake of his own sanity, Keats began to despair of ever attaining fulfilment. He resolved to stake all on one last assault, and arranged for the girl to fall under the misapprehension that he was terminally ill with a condition known as “obfuscated bladder”. Chapman was enlisted to explain the symptoms of this pernicious ailment, which was supposed to cause a complete breakdown in urinary function before death set in in earnest. For his part, Keats essayed a convincing performance of picturesque suffering. He hoped that their combined efforts would speak to the girl’s innate sense of charity and lead her to view the poet in a different light.

Believing he had won her sympathy, Keats once again sought her affection, this time as a dying man seeking only a little happiness before being overtaken by a painful end. Unfortunately he had once again underestimated his loved one, who had quickly seen through his deep sighs and melodramatic leg crossing. She confronted him with the fact that “obfuscated bladder” was to be found in no medical textbook, and that he had surely invented the whole notion by way of deceiving her into a liaison. His charade being exposed, there was nothing for it but to flee back to England, knowing that this “non” would be the girl’s final word.

On the journey home, Chapman commiserated with his friend but chastised him for the convoluted nature of his plan. “Why did you have to pick such an obscure disease? What was with all that eye-rolling and leg crossing? And was it really necessary for the condition to be terminal?” Keats slung himself listlessly athwart the deck rail and, speaking into the ship’s wake, answered, “I was dying for a ‘oui‘.”

Not standing for election in 2009

I have decided not to put my name forward for selection to contest the local elections in the new Pembroke-Rathmines ward. It has been my ambition to win back a Council seat for the Green Party here, but in the past year I have acquired a demanding (and exciting) new job and an even more demanding (and exciting) new baby daughter. I’ve had to conclude that I’m not in a position to give the campaign the 100% effort it requires without seriously impacting on my other responsibilities, in particular my family responsibilities.

I regret that I’m pulling out so close to the selection convention – I had been trying up until recently to put in place arrangements that would have allowed me to run, but these didn’t come to fruition. However I know that a number of candidates are interested in the selection and will be putting themselves forward.

I’m still very keen to get stuck in to campaigning in whatever way I can, and I look forward to working with whomever is selected to secure the seat for the Green Party.

The selection convention takes place on Tuesday September 9th.

Apple’s App Store still banjaxed for Irish customers: no games

As an iPod Touch owner I was impatiently awaiting the launch of the iPhone 2.0 software, which allows you to download custom applications from the iTunes App Store to run on your iPod. Lots of cool stuff had been promised, including games such as Super Monkey Ball, Cro-Mag Rally, Tetris etc. Apparently half of the applications released at the launch of the App Store were games. In Ireland, however, the App Store only displays one lonely game, the less than inspiring Mr Potatohead simulator Mr. Shuffle.

A thread on Apple’s support discussions site throws out all sorts of theories, and documents users’ attempts to get answers from Apple on the problem. Some posters put it down to the general shoddiness of treatment of Irish customers (no movie rentals or TV shows from iTunes after 2 years), others to some difficulties with the Irish censors. Responses from Apple staff indicated that developers had simply decided not to release their games in Ireland for some reason. This theory was quickly discounted:

So Apple expect us to believe that every games developer in the world decided to not make their games available in Ireland? Sounds more like a default excuse to me. “We dont want to look into the problem, so we’ll just blame the developers”

Somebody even wrote to the Irish Film Censor’s to confirm that they don’t have anything to do with the matter. Somebody else emailed one of the game developers, Pangea Software, who responded as follows:

Something has been wrong with the Ireland store since Thursday because only 1 game is showing up. There should be 200 games. Apple knows about the problem, but it looks like it still isnt’ fixed yet. Hopefully they’ll have all the games up there soon.

So it’s Apple’s problem after all, but they don’t seem to be in a hurry to fix it. Tomorrow will be one week since the store went live, and I can’t imagine the fix is technically complex.

In the meantime we have to make do with Mr. Shuffle, which doesn’t look like it’s worth €2.39 to me. However, I couldn’t resist posting a sarcastic review to iTunes. It probably won’t show up, so the text is below:

The one and only

I’m a huge fan of this app because it’s quite simply the only game worth buying from the App Store if you live in Ireland. In fact, it’s the only game you can buy from the App Store if you live in Ireland. Apple quite rightly feel that we Irish need time to get to grips with the complexities of Mr. Shuffle before we can be expected to deal with the likes of Super Monkey Ball.

Update: They posted my review! They obviously don’t read these things too carefully. And the games are finally starting to trickle in: Mr. Shuffle has been joined by MotionX Poker, Platinum Solitaire, SuperPong and Bubble Bash.

New Local Electoral Areas

Dublin City LEAs

Following on from my last piece of political nerdery, the recommendations of the two local electoral area committees have been published. Unfortunately the reports were posted to the committees’ web site, which appears to have been put together with Microsoft Publisher, of all things, and is not viewable on any web browser other than Internet Explorer. Direct links to the reports are below:

Dublin & Cities Electoral Area Boundary Report

Dublin City Map

Dublin County Map

Electoral Area Boundary Report (rest of the country)

In Dublin South East, the 4-seater Rathmines and 3-seater Pembroke have been merged into a single 6-seater called Pembroke-Rathmines, with the loss of a small part of Sandymount to South East Inner City, which goes from a 3-seater to a 4-seater.

There is such intense interest in this sort of report that it’s difficult to guard against leaks, so I’m pretty happy that we managed to keep a lid on it until they could be released to the public. I had a lot of calls yesterday and this morning from people looking for an early peek, as well as claims that other people had already been shown the reports, but I’m not aware of anybody having accurate information on what was in the reports before today.

A little “Pick Me Up”

Cover of Pick Me Up magazine I recently had occasion to shop for a light read to divert somebody who was in hospital to, let’s say, have a baby. My eye was drawn to the bright colours and cheerful aspect of UK weekly Pick Me Up, which looked suitably fluffy. I wasn’t aware, however, that the purpose of this particular journal is in fact to offer its readers a weekly glimpse into the abyss. The headlines arranged around a picture of an adorable bunny rabbit saying “Have a hoppy Easter” included the following:

My fiance dropped DEAD after seeing me RAPED

Locked up and sent to an orphanage on our dream holiday

My sister killed our mum and buried her in the woods

A happy family until my husband FORGOT our baby

In case you think I just caught it on a bad week, these are some of the headlines from the previous week’s edition (also on display):

Enjoy the weekend… You’ll be DEAD on Monday

My eyes EXPLODED while I was SHOPPING

Stabbed 80 times and dumped in a bath of bleach

Quite a pick me up.

Local election boundary review: mapping the proposals

One for the political nerds. The boundary commissions currently reviewing local electoral areas in Ireland have been receiving submissions from political parties and members of the public, and have now posted these submissions on their web site. In an idle moment this week I started a fairly frivolous project of mapping the various proposals which have been submitted for Dublin South East.

View Larger Map

The boundaries I’ve drawn are rather sketchy, and so far I’ve only got as far as mapping Cllr Paddy McCartan’s proposal for a super-Pembroke along the lines of the old Dublin No. 10 ward. A number of the other submissions which impinge on DSE are to do with Terenure and are rather non-specific and difficult to map.

It occurs to me that, with a few collaborators, this could be expanded to cover the whole of Dublin City. If anybody wants to contribute to this please post a comment and I’ll add you as a collaborator on Google Maps.

The pictures the Irish Daily Mail doesn’t want you to see

Every day I receive a sheaf of (electronic) press cuttings, including what I assume are the best bits of the Irish Daily Mail. Last Friday this included a column by Roslyn Dee under the carefully measured headline, “Make children cycle to school? Are they all totally insane?” It’s not available online, but the gist of it is that cycling is inelegant for adults and lethal for children.

EVER see Audrey Hepburn on a bicycle? No, me neither. Catherine Deneuve? Nope. The very notion of either of them, surely two of the most elegant women the world has ever known, getting into the gear and clambering on board a bike is a full-frontal assault on beauty.

Holly Golightly in John Gormley kit? The beautiful Deneuve freewheeling down the Champs Elysees, helmet slapped on her head, clips on her heels? Quelle horreur!

It took me several seconds to find the following images via Google Image Search:

Audrey Hepburn on a bicycle Audrey Hepburn on a bicycle Audrey Hepburn on a bicycle

Quelle horreur indeed! Although I must admit Catherine Deneuve seems to have been careful not to be snapped cycling on the Champs Elysees or anywhere else.

Click the photo for the full size image. From this page.

Update: Thanks to Michael Kelly, it has come to my attention that even Catherine Deneuve has been complicit in the following full-frontal assault on beauty:

Catherine Deneuve on bicycle

The text of all my posts has disappeared. I don’t know why and I don’t have time to fix it. Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.

The text of all my previous posts seems to have gone AWOL. It’s still there when I edit the post, it’s just not showing up on the site. At the moment I have no idea why this might be, nor do I have any time to try and figure it out. Normal service will be resumed at some future date.

Update: Yes, it was just an unruly plug-in. All fixed now.

RTÉ spin on incineration?

I don’t know who writes the headlines for audio and video clips which appear on RTÉ’s web site, but the following link appeared today, attached to a story about the oral hearing into the Poolbeg incinerator:

Morning Ireland: Dominic Hogg, environmental consultant, says incineration is a necessary solution to waste disposal

Given that Dominic Hogg has just released a major report showing that waste policy in Ireland is far too reliant on incineration as a solution, I thought it unlikely that this was a fair reflection of his contribution on Morning Ireland.  However, on listening back to the clip, I found it was practically the opposite of what he said.  Here’s my transcript of the first minute or so of the programme:

Morning Ireland: Can we just clear up one thing, in terms of where you stand on the question of incineration, before we get your views on this.  You accept that incineration is, or is likely to be and needs to be some part of the solution to our waste management problems, in the country as a whole?

Dominic Hogg: “Needs to be” is probably not correct, because it says it’s absolutely necessary, but certainly it may have a role to play, and sometimes, I think, the debate on incineration is very dogmatic, and you’re either assumed to be vehemently anti- or vehemently pro- and there seems that there’s not much space for people in the middle, and we I suppose try to stand somewhere in the middle, calling it as we see it.

Morning Ireland: You’re not against incineration in principle?

Dominic Hogg: Not in principle, no.

So even though he specifically refused to go along with the presenter’s contention that incineration was “necessary”, this is what found its way into the headline. Misleading headlines are a commonplace in Ireland’s print media, but usually the content of the story is distorted rather than completely inverted.

I’m going to put this one down to lazy sub-editing – it’s probably too far-fetched to suggest it’s the result of an editorial bias towards incineration.

The oral hearing itself kicked off with a full morning of procedural wrangling too tedious to write about in any detail. The only trivia worth reporting was that among the attendees were both Minister for Justice Michael McDowell and Colombia Three member James Monaghan. Having said that, I’d love to have the time to follow the proceedings in full, especially the cross-examination of witnesses produced by Dublin City Council.

Thursday election?

Bertie Ahern has hinted that the General Election will take place on a Thursday, and possibly a few weeks after the most commonly predicted date of 18th May. The folks at are exercised enough to launch a petition calling for weekend voting. Many people might not remember that the last time we had polling on a Saturday was for the second Nice referendum in 2002. At the time the Government were pretty happy to admit that this timing was designed to “facilitate higher youth turnout“. What they didn’t mention, of course, was that they were operating on the assumption that a higher youth turnout would favour the ‘Yes’ vote they were promoting.

Like anybody else, I love to say I told you so, so I refer back to what I said to a special session of the National Forum on Europe on “Young people and the EU” in October 2002:

The Taoiseach’s commitment to youth participation in democracy would be demonstrated if he had weekend voting for future elections, Mr Ryan Meade of the Green Party told the forum.

For years, requests for weekend voting had fallen on deaf ears, he said, and one could only assume that this was because the Government was “not keen to see the results of greater youth participation in this context”.

At least, that’s how I was quoted in the Irish Times (subscription required), I can’t remember if I phrased it any better or worse than that. The next poll, the local and European elections, were held in 2004 on a Friday (much of the rest of Europe voted over the weekend), and now we’re back to Thursday elections. Obviously Bertie is not in a mood to “facilitate higher youth turnout” this year.

Speaking personally, the most backed date of Friday 18th May wouldn’t suit me at all, but neither would any delay. How about Saturday 12th May?

Blogging from the Green Party National Convention

This weekend I will be at the Green Party National Convention in Galway, contributing to the party’s Convention web log. I’m hoping to provide some commentary from behind the scenes, as well as covering the various speeches, debates and motions as they happen.

Proper bloggers have been invited to attend also. I can’t help but think of this classic Tom Tomorrow strip from 2004:

This Modern World strip on blogging the convention

IBEC oppose blanket WiFi coverage for Dublin

Dublin City Council has put public WiFi for Dublin back on the agenda, and it doesn’t surprise me to learn that IBEC are agin it:

“In effect Dublin City Council would be diverting public funds to put existing WiFi operators out of business, causing redundancies, and it could have an overall negative impact on the broadband market through what boils down to below cost selling.”

This is the sort of response I predicted in some comments I left on John Carroll’s blog back in July. To quote myself:

Switching on a citywide hotspot would be an admirable public service by the City Council, but it would bring them into immediate conflict with existing commercial interests, i.e. broadband and WiFi access providers like eircom, BT and BitBuzz. These companies would view any free or even cut-price access as unfair competition with their own offerings. This is almost certainly what lies at the root of the City Manager’s reluctance to push this one forward.

IBEC’s claims of prospective redundancies (which I don’t take seriously) should be set against the overall competitive advantage Dublin would gain as a city blanketed with cheap wifi. However in this case protecting the interests of existing players has weighed more heavily on IBEC’s mind than achieving an overall improvement in the economic environment in the city.

The City Council’s service wouldn’t compete with commercial broadband, but it’s true that it might result in loss of business for commercial providers of wifi hotspots. However there are still plenty of furrows for these providers to plough, and it would actually be of benefit if they were to concentrate on switching on hotspots in trickier locations than the city centre.

I am not without sympathy for the hotspot providers (one of the founders of Bitbuzz is a friend and former colleague of mine), but it seems to me that they are reaping the benefit of an artificial WiFi shortage in the city. If the whole city can be turned on cheaply, why should consumers be forced to pay high hourly rates and mess about with vouchers every time they want to get online in the city centre? Why should we have to find a cafe or bar to work in when WiFi can be provided in other public spaces?

IBEC “urges the Council to meet with industry to discuss their proposals and find a sustainable way forward”. I don’t doubt that their idea of a “sustainable way forward” is one in which the profits of their members are sustained. If the Council doesn’t agree to cut them in for a taste, I fully expect that at least one operator will threaten legal action in order to stop it going ahead. Such are the difficulties faced by anyone trying to provide a new public service in today’s ideological climate.