Parliament pushes open standards to increase public engagement

Parliament has adopted a policy to use open technology standards to increase public participation in political debate.

Parliament has adopted a policy to use open technology standards to increase public participation in political debate.

The Parliamentary Information Communication and Technology office (Pict) policy is part of proposed plan to distribute broadcasts of parliamentary debates in a form that people can embed in their own websites, in a similar manner to the way YouTube allows video content to be displayed on blogs and other sites.

Pict recommended ditching the proprietary Flash and Windows Media standards produced by Adobe and Microsoft, which it already uses to broadcast parliamentary proceedings, because they are not available to the widest possible audience of computer users.

Bob Castle, Pict's head of information rights and information security, said in response to a Freedom of Information request, "Pict has recently engaged with external experts specifically relating to publishing standards and will strategically adopt open standards other than exceptionally where there are no reliable standards-based technologies to enable use."

He added, "Pict will continually evaluate technology and adopt open standards as and where appropriate."

Improvement programme

Parliament proposed a "broadcast improvement programme", which would involve replacing a proprietary broadcast system that was put in place only last year without any prior audit of its consequences for democratic participation. The present system, using Microsoft's Silverlight media technology, was introduced as a routine upgrade in September 2009 by TwoFour Group, the company that hosts Parliament's video broadcasts.

Restrictions on the wide use of Microsoft's media formats made them unsuitable for democratic broadcasts, Pict concluded, in studies conducted this year and obtained by Computer Weekly with a Freedom of Information request.

A feasibility study for Parliament's broadcast improvement programme said, "The principle reasons TwoFour has chosen Silverlight as the technology platform to deliver Parliament's video content is because it is the natural platform of progression from Windows Media in the Microsoft roadmap."

TwoFour, as an accredited Microsoft Silverlight partner, receives marketing and technical assistance from Microsoft.

Final options

Independent studies by Pict concluded that Microsoft's media technology was not suitable, however. Pict's Final Options and Recommendations for the Broadcast Improvement Programme said in July, "We should make concentrated effort to ensure that the use of any video codec at source is adequate for the widest possible audience and devices using existing standards."

This conclusion complied with an objective set in the programme's feasibility study, "To improve access to parliamentary content by using open standards to achieve maximum possible audience reach, both today and in the future."

An e-mail discussing the recommendations with Innis Montgomery, Pict's director of technology, said in January that a workshop between PICT, the Broadcasting Unit and Parliament's web centre concluded that all parliamentary data "should be made available using open standards that are globally accessible in a standard browser".

"Because they are closed platforms, Flash and Silverlight services should degrade to an open standard alternative," said the e-mail, whose sender had been redacted. The workshop concluded that Adobe Flash and Microsoft Silverlight media technology should be phased out in a process of "elegant degradation". They will be replaced gradually with an open standard, probably HTML5.

This, the workshop found, would resolve "the issues with accessibility and the requirements to archive our data in widely-adopted and accessible formats".

Pict recognised that Adobe's Flash technology had become near-ubiquitous since being deployed in YouTube by Google. But Pict's search for a suitable non-proprietary media format reflected a wider falling from favour for Flash.

"Google/YouTube, and a number of other companies, have recognised the limitations of closed platforms and are now moving towards an HTML5-based video platform. YouTube already supports this for all new content," said the Feasibility Study.

But there were doubts about the future of the proposals. Unspecified licence restrictions mean Pict might be forced to continue using Microsoft media technology.

"There will be no clarity until summer 2011 regarding changes to licensing that currently restricts video to only be available through streaming," said Pict official Diego Moore, in Pict's Final Options And Recommendations report, published internally in July.

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