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Column: Why the KildareStreet.com debacle is just a symptom

KildareStreet.com might survive – but its story represents a wider Irish problem, writes William Campbell.

William Campbell

LAST WEEK, THE Finnish government launched an online system where Finns can submit petitions which, if supported by 50,000 more citizens, will go before the Finnish parliament. Meanwhile, the US Patent Office released a system via which the public can comment on patent applications for inventions.

These are the type of things that I advocated when I wrote Here’s How: Creative Solutions for Ireland’s Economic and Social Problems. There are dozens of ways technology and good ideas can improve the way we are governed, either at zero or negative cost.

The US Patent Office’s move is a particularly good one – wrongly granting patents causes serious problems, but examining each application is a long and costly process, though vital to the economy. That’s where the nerds enthusiasts come in. For every technical area, there are people who love the detail. Terrible if they corner you at a party, brilliant if you need to analyse a complex issue. Many of the enthusiasts are eager to comment on patent applications in their area of interest. The trivial cost of a website to accept comments is paid back many times over by the value of the input.

There are a thousand more smart ways to improve governance, or reduce its cost, or both. Also last week, I delivered a copy of my book to each TD and Senator. Coincidentally, on the same day, the Oireachtas scrapped the XML feed of Dáil and Seanad speeches. XML is vital – let me tell you why, without making you feel that I have trapped you at a party.

It’s great if people can read web pages like this one. But it’s really useful if computers can read web pages. Websites like SkyScanner.ie can collect and display airfares from airlines’ websites, and millions more websites talk to other websites and display information together that is much more useful than any single data source. Anyone with a computer and a bit of enthusiasm can do clever things using data from other XML websites.

Proof of importance

KildareStreet.com is – or was – a website created in 2009 by volunteers who raised €5,000 in funds to cover costs. They used the XML feed from the Oireachtas website to allow users to search Dáil and Seanad speeches, which is particularly important since the Oireachtas’ own website is a disaster. Proof of its importance is this: more than one third of KildareStreet.com’s hits came from Leinster House itself. And it didn’t cost taxpayers a cent.

On Tuesday the Oireachtas, without warning or explanation, terminated their use of XML. For a computer, a website with XML is like a telephone book – regular and predictable so you can quickly find the information you need. Without XML it doesn’t look different for human users, but for the computer, it’s a bowl of alphabet soup.

When asked why this had happened, Oireachtas staff gave an answer that seemed to indicate they had no understanding of the issue, although they’re not the worst. Look at this disaster of a website from the PTRB. They put the list of rental properties in a slew of dozens of Microsoft Excel files, presumably because they commute to work each morning from 1993. They don’t even need to make a website, they could just put the raw data online and I, or a thousand others, would be happy to build a web front end for it.

And people could cross-reference it with… who knows what. Crime statistics, tax fraud, NAMA properties – we don’t know what interesting things we will find until we can look. But it’s not going to happen.

Because after an online furore, Oireachtas staff have agreed to meet KildareStreet.com volunteers to see if they will think about considering if they might undo the trashing of the single most useful website for Irish democracy.

Because it takes this much effort to get the Irish government out of reverse gear and into neutral. Because while a website that well-connected politicians use might be defended from the cack-handed actions of civil servant ‘experts’, a website to help vulnerable tenants is left unworkable for years on end.

Ireland is failing because standing still seems like a victory over going backwards.

William Campbell is the author of Here’s How: Creative Solutions for Ireland’s Economic and Social Problems.

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