I’ve got to admit, I’ve never paid much attention to the European Parliament. To be honest, I don’t think many people do; the turnout in European elections here in the UK is very low.
But a couple of things have recently changed that. The first was the fact that the European Parliament (hereafter EP) elections are coming up next month; the second was the controversial Telecoms Packet. We hear very little about what gets discussed in the EP, so I went to their website to find out. I was utterly astonished by what I found.
The EP website is clunky, and it’s a bit hard to find the information you’re after, but that’s not really the problem. Have a look at a debate and you’ll see what’s wrong: every contribution is recorded in the speaker’s original language:
The verbatim report of proceedings of each sitting (often referred to by its French abbreviation, CRE) is published (Rule 173 of the Rules of Procedure) and contains the speeches made in plenary, in the original language.
OK, I can read French, Dutch, German, Spanish, and Italian well enough to catch the gist. But I don’t understand Polish, or Latvian, or Bulgarian, or Greek, or Hungarian, or …. In fact, I doubt that there’s a single person alive who can speak all twenty-three working languages of the European Union. In other words, no one can understand what’s going on unless they were actually there.
The odd thing is that, whilst debates are simultaneously translated, these translations never seem to make it into the official record. This is, surely, no way to run a democracy. I thought this was all pretty scandalous.
A little later, I realised that I could actually do something about it. Google’s translation service can handle almost all the EU languages (all except Irish, I think). I know how to make websites, and how to scrape data off other websites. I had signed up for the Yahoo-sponsored 24-hour Open Hack Day last weekend, and decided that opening up the European Parliament should be my project. I roped in Julian Burgess as a collaborator, and we roughly bolted together a website to prove that it was possible.
Check out the debates, and see what your EU representatives have been discussing! At present, we’ve only scraped a couple of days of debates, but we’ve proven both that it’s a workable idea and that Google’s translations are pretty good.
We won a Guardian-sponsored prize for Best Government Hack, which was both gratifying and amusing, considering that Julian works for The Times!
My hope is that I can get it into workable shape before the next session opens, so that the next session of the European Parliament takes place in a more open environment than it has done in the past.