Transcripts of conversations with mySociety people

  • Thanks very much for agreeing to talk to me about Akoma Ntoso.

  • That's fine. Not a problem!

  • I hope you won't mind if my questions are pretty basic. The idea is to give an overview, or a kind of.. beginners' guide, if that's ok.

  • So if I could start with the obvious question. What is Akoma Ntoso?

  • What is Akoma Ntoso? Well. Akoma Ntoso is an XML open standard.

  • Wait wait, stop right there - what is a 'standard'? Can you just explain that?

  • OK... let's see. Look at it this way.

    Standards are often mistaken for something that “standardise” us, that somehow take away our freedom, or something that will not allow us to really address our own individuality.

    Nothing could be far from the actual reality of what standards - good standards - are about. Trains use standard gauges and that give us the freedom to use the train to move through many countries.

    Mobile phone use the common standards, and these give us the freedom of using our mobile wherever we go.

    But even more than this... languages are basically standards. They're made of a set of terms, vocabulary, and set of rules about how to put them together - grammar - and it is only because we all abide to them... say, the vocabulary and grammar of the English language, that you are able understand me now.

    So “standards” are not there to prevent our freedom/creativity/individuality, on the contrary.

  • OK, I get that. And an 'open' standard - that just means a standard that anyone is free to use, without fear that they are transgressing copyright or whatever?

  • That's it.

    But to talk specifically about parliamentary standards. A common standard for parliamentary documents allows parliaments to share and reuse information more freely, allows parliamentary monitoring organisations to build tools together that can be much more easily deployed all over the world, it allows monitoring of social and political issues on wider scale and in a much more accurate fashion.

    So standards, and Akoma Ntoso is one, they are not there to frustrate anyone's needs but on the contrary, to empower them, to make our own information much more accessible and reusable.

    Standards also provide a unique opportunity for economy of scales and cost-saving since they can boost innovation and reduce costs because of the wider re-use and markets that a widely adopted standard may provide.

  • Yeah. I see. That's great.

  • Now Akoma Ntoso is meant to support the creation of “machine readable” parliamentary, legislative and judiciary documents, in other words make them easy to read, search, share and reuse.

  • Easy because you can introduce a degree of automation? Like, 'machine' means 'computer' basically, right? So computers can read the transcripts and publish them without the need for human intervention.

  • Right, so you want to know what 'machine readable' means. There's more to it than what you say.

    Go back in history: the introduction of the printing press contributed hugely to the dissemination of knowledge and information... in an unprecedented way.

    But in the last 20 years, we've seen an exponential availability of information, computers together with the internet made the access, and the production, and dissemination of documents easy and fast, shattering the time and place barrier that printed documents had.

    Computers and the internet have been used essentially like a super-printer to disseminate information fast and cheaply, but the way we read information has basically not changed, only the medium we read from has changed.

    But computers and the internet are not just like the next evolutionary step of the printing process. Computers are meant to compute, they process and provide the opportunity to also process information.. not just disseminate information.

    Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of Internet was among the first to highlight the need do better. I've got quote here, I'm going to read it to you:

    “Most of the Web's content today is designed for humans to read, not for computer programs to manipulate meaningfully.

    "Computers can adeptly parse Web pages for layout and routine processing--here a header, there a link to another page--but in general, computers have no reliable way to process the semantic (…)

    "The Semantic Web is not a separate Web but an extension of the current one, in which information is given well-defined meaning, better enabling computers and people to work in cooperation. (…)

    "[It] will usher in significant new functionality as machines become much better able to process and "understand" the data that they merely display at present.”

    That's from ‘The semantic web’, Scientific American, May 2001.

    So the web has been stuck in the printing paradigm, content to display information: it has mainly been a medium of documents for people rather than for data and information that can be processed automatically.

    Only by having documents machine readable, will we be able to really harness the power of computer and web to deliver advance information services and to cope with the huge amount of information available in an effective fashion, making productive use of data.

    Akoma Ntoso is nothing more than an XML specialised language, made of terms and rules, that computers can read.

    Akoma Ntoso makes documents machine readable and it is this that allow us to build advance information services, like SayIt, that would not have been possible otherwise.

  • Right yes, so there is a lot more to it than just publication. It's about using all the potential of web pages, of the capability to hyperlink and make relationships between people and their utterances, and so on.

  • Yes, but hyperlink not just documents, but information within documents, the different semantic parts, or meanings, to create a smart web that can address, say, the demand of citizens: all the speeches of on a specific subject, who voted for a specific bill, things like that.

  • OK, I see. Now.... next question... ah yes. Akoma Ntoso deals with legislative, parliamentary, and Judiciary documents. Can you explain a bit more about that?

  • They're part of the same ecosystem that deals with how we build and manage our societies. Legislation is the instrument used by our societies to manage themselves. Parliaments are the law-factories, if we can say so, and more specifically debates, committees hearings and reports are the assembly lines where laws are finalised. And it is the judiciary where the relevant part of laws may be applied and so the place where we can monitor the impact of laws and parliaments on society.

    Having a standard that deals with the whole ecosystem of laws, from drafting in parliaments to its applications in the courts of justice just made economic sense - that is to say, considering the re-usability of documents, and it made social and political accountability sense.

  • OK. One thing I'm curious about. Akoma Ntoso is an African name and clearly you're from an Italian background, and.. well I guess the question is, what's the link with Africa?

  • Akoma Ntoso means “linked hearts” in the language of the Akan people of West Africa. Actually all the symbols that we have used in our project do come from their Adinkra symbols and we used the symbol for Akoma Ntoso as the logo.

    All right, so why Africa? The whole thing was initially developed under Africa i-Parliaments, a United Nations project. The idea was to promote a sustainable deployment of ICT in African parliaments, to support their efforts to become more open and accountable institutions.

    Africa had and has still many challenges and yes, lack of expertise in semantic technologies.

    But in fact it was a good thing that IT systems in parliaments were very recent,and mostly limited to “publishing” on website. It meant that there was not the burden of “IT legacy” and it allowed African parliaments the luxury of being able to see beyond their own specific problems.

    As early as 2005 there was a conference in Nairobi, "Parliaments' Information Management in Africa: Challenges and Opportunities of ICTs to Strengthen Democracy and Parliamentary Governance". And they agreed in quite a forward-looking statement that we needed - ok, again, I'm going to read this - “open and interoperable standards, innovative technologies and full access to information as a strategic objective for strengthening democracy and modernization in Africa“.

    The expertise behind Akoma Ntoso was mostly from outside Africa, but the African parliaments were the ones that saw and believed first that a common standard was the way to go and demanded that the standard should have an African name.

  • Interesting - I like how what could have been a disadvantage actually turned out in your favour.

    Right, so, my next question is whether you were creating this on a blank canvas, or were there already other standards in existence? If so, why make a new one?

  • When we began to think about the need of a “common standard” in 2005, there were just a few parliaments that had began to use XML, but their focus was very much self-centred.

    It responded to their own needs and concerns as if the issue of global access sharing of information and reuse of documents were not really relevant for them.

    But there has been an initiative of the European Parliament, ParlML, unfortunately terminated in 2003 because it was too … smart for that time, that did see need for a common standard.

    European Parliament was like our project - it had to deal with all the parliaments of a whole continent. So they were able to perceive before everyone else that this was a critical opportunity: to provide global access and allow easy sharing of documents with external systems.

    ParlML has to be considered the precursor of Akoma Ntoso, since it had laid out the goals of what we have eventually achieved with Akoma Ntoso.

  • Akoma Ntoso is different because it is not really a set of schemas covering the different document types, like debates, bills, judgements and so on. That's what a number of national parliaments do nowadays.

    Akoma Ntoso is a vocabulary and a set of rules that allows your organisation to build your very own and specific schema, for your own document types..

    We can say that Akoma Ntoso is a meta-schema that allows you to build your own schema, it provides the building blocks for different organisations to use to build their own very individual schemas.

    Having organisations using similar building blocks, identifying these blocks in a similar fashion goes a long way to allow greater integration and exchange of documents as well as reusability of software tools. In other words, better, smarter services and more sustainable development and deployment of information systems.

    Akoma Ntoso overcomes the multiplicity of information coding which has brought about divergent and mutually unintelligible documents.

    It does this by creating a common specific markup language that meets the information management needs of the parliamentary, legislative and judiciary ecosystem.

    Nowadays nobody would consider that having mobile phone with country specific and incompatible standards would be a smart idea. It has now become more and more apparent to parliaments, civil society but also publishers that a common standard does make a lot of sense in terms of accessibility, smart services but also cost-saving and re-usability.

    What is different in Akoma Ntoso is that it is not a jacket, let alone a strait jacket, it is a piece of cloth that allows you to tailor your own very personal suit or schema to meet your very own specific requirements while making your document reusable and readable by all Akoma Ntoso compatible applications and tools.

  • Great. Yes, so parliaments can exchange documents between themselves without issues, website owners can publish without issues, everybody can understand each other's documents without issues... if we all use a common standard, like Akoma Ntoso.

    Next I want to ask about the practicalities. How easy is it to parse a transcript into Akoma Ntoso? Can anyone do it, or do you need to be a developer/coder?

  • Here the right answer is “it depends”. There are many factors, beside the skills of people who are writing the parsing code, that come to play. It depends on how well or bad the document that you want to parse from is structured, and how uniform those structures are. It depends how semantically rich you want the Akoma Ntoso output to be.

    Parsing legal documents is not just a coding exercise, it requires a good understanding of the structure and semanticsof the document. Usually transcripts do not have a complex structure, but in the case of bills and acts, or judgements, to create a good parser you also need the input of people with legal backgrounds.

    I have to say that Akoma Ntoso may be a bit harder to digest, at least at first, not so much because Akoma Ntoso is complex, but because it is different.

    Yes, when you open the Akoma Ntoso “box” you don't find, say, a debate schema, prefabricated for you.

    Akoma Ntoso is more like a Lego box full of building bricks. Yes, you do not have the prefabricated house waiting for you, but if you only have the patience to learn how to put together the bricks you have as many "houses" as you wish.

    Like Lego, you can build very simple houses with just four walls and a roof, or you can build elaborate castles. Akoma Ntoso can be as simple or as complex as you wish and it's just about as intimidating as Lego box of bricks. Just play with it!

  • Heh. Lego is good and unintimidating. That, I don't mind trying.

  • With time we tried to meet the demand for prefabricated schema, since they are undoubtedly a great way to start. We developed a "schema generator" (it's at generator.akomantoso.org). It's a tool that can generate samples of schemas from which to start to build your own localised schema.

    If you want to learn how to play with Akoma Ntoso I would also advise you to read "Customizing Akoma Ntoso: modularization, restrictions, extensions". It's a fairly plain English explanation of how to customise Akoma Ntoso.

    Please note that all this documentation needs to be updated to the new release 3.0 of Akoma Ntoso, which is about to be finalised by the OASIS Technical Committee.

  • Understood. Now what about take-up? Has it been widely used? Are there notable users?

  • Let me just say that Akoma Ntoso can be freely used by anybody. For example, your projet SayIt has used it without having to ask anybody. This to say that the list of organisations that use Akoma Ntoso is almost certainly an under-estimation of the actual use.

    From my current understanding Akoma Ntoso is adopted even if at different level bythese people - not in any particular order, let's see...

    The European Parliament, for modelling amendments, amendment lists, bills, proposals, consolidated version of those documents.

    The Library Congress of Chile for managing debates and recently also bills and acts.

    The Senate of Italy for publishing all parliamentary documents.

    LexML Brazil uses a customization of Akoma Ntoso.

    The Uruguay Parliament for modelling all the law-making process of the bills.

    The Federal Chancellery of Switzerland for the publication of bills, acts, consolidated code in the Official Journals.

    The European Commission is testing the adoption of Akoma Ntoso in order to better the interoperability with EU Parliament.

    The Nicaragua Assembly for managing the whole life-cycle of law-making.

    The Hong Kong Ministry of Justice.

    Kenya Law Report is working to convert their own XML into an Akoma Ntoso compliant format.

    Last but not least, there's Sayit. Oh, and also a customisation of Liquidfeedback by the Italian M5S.

  • Wow, I'd count that as success! Yes, I think you can certainly say it's been widely adopted, and by countries all over the world. That's quite an achievement.

    Well, Flavio, thank you very much for talking to me, I really appreciate it. You've explained a lot of things to me very clearly and I feel more informed now. Hopefully when we put this conversation up on the blog, our readers will feel equally elucidated!