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Hansard considers cloud to escape Microsoft lock-in

Mark Ballard

Whitehall techies proposed putting Hansard in the cloud to escape restrictions imposed by Microsoft's proprietary multimedia standards.

The Parliamentary Information Communication and Technology (PICT) office made the recommendation after concluding that licences it holds with broadcasters and proprietary software suppliers prevented it from improving public access to Parliament's official record.

PICT proposed solving a clutch of technical problems by moving Hansard into the cloud.

It would free the Parliamentary record from restrictions imposed by proprietary software suppliers such as Microsoft, whose multimedia technology is used to transmit video recordings of Parliamentary proceedings over the web.

Multiple versions

The cloud would stop the "proliferation" of different versions of Hansard, stored in different places for different purposes which disregards the strategic intention to have a single official record.

And a Hansard application programming interface (API) would need to be created so that anyone could insert Hansard data into their web pages from its cloud repository.

PICT recommended the Broadcast Improvement Plan in July - a copy of which was obtained by Computer Weekly under a Freedom of Information request - as a way to provide indexed links to Hansard's video archive from its textual transcripts. But it has been stalled while Hansard renegotiates broadcasting agreements that restrict how it uses its data.

The cloud proposal warned that there were already five different versions of Hansard and yet another would be created if it pursued its attempts to implement the Broadcast Improvement Plan using the same means it has before. There are versions of Hansard for PDF, Rolling Hansard, Hansard-on-the-Web, Historic Hansard and PIMS.

"We should be wary of introducing another," said PICT in its recommendation.

Open standards

Cloud technology made it feasible to put Hansard all in one place and the bulk transfer of all its data would be an opportunity to transcode it from proprietary software formats into more desirable open standards, reckoned PICT.

"Given the low costs of cloud computing and the low entry-level barrier for use, it would be entirely plausible to convert a vast amount of historical video archives into a new standard video codec using cloud computing while at the same time maintaining fine-grained control over costs," said the recommendation.

It referred to the example of the New York Times, which "pre-baked" 4Tbytes of back catalogue data consisting of articles published between 1851 and 1922, converting them from Tiff formats to PDFs.

It imagined that moving Hansard data into the cloud would free it from constraints imposed by the numerous formats into which it was being encoded.

"This case study, combined with the facilities that Amazon provide to upload large quantities of data offline without limitations set by bandwidth, provides an opportunity to decide on the right video codec to transcode historical archives," said PICT.

Cost implications

PICT had estimated 81 days work to develop a Hansard API, install a new video player and implement a new system of streaming indexed Hansard recordings into web pages. But if it went the cloud route, it would have to set aside another 30 days work for the transcoding and carry the additional cost of £3,000 a month to the cloud service provider.

It would also have to write off a "substantial investment" it had made in Microsoft's proprietary Silverlight multimedia technology.


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