SayIt: Civic Software for ‘Smart’ Transcripts

sayitOne of the most recent civic tools to come on the market is SayIt, an open source software that publishes transcripts that are easy to read, search and share on the Internet.

SayIt was built by MySociety, an organization whose mission is “to help people become more powerful in the civic and democratic parts of their lives, through digital means,” in collaboration with Poplus, an “international network of civic hackers building open source components.”

According to Poplus's blog, SayIt can be used to publish or read PDF and Microsoft Word transcript files, among other various formats. 

SayIt is a new way to publish transcripts online – transcripts such as parliamentary debates, court trials, speeches, or even playscripts. It can be embedded into your website, or used as a standalone instance.

SayIt's “Help” page explains a few more things. Among them, why it's important to have better transcripts. 

Transcripts are a kind of oil that greases the wheels of well-functioning societies. They let people discover when powerful people have made pronouncements that affect less powerful people. We believe that by making transcripts function better, more people will end up learning about decisions and opinions that affect their lives.

The application is still in Alpha format, meaning the developmental stages. But it has already captured specialized media interest. Wired, for example, spoke with Myfanwy Nixon, Marketing and Communications Manager for MySociety. Nixon explains that SayIt works with Akoma Ntoso, an open data standard, and that work has largely consisted of the transcripts being displayed correctly. 

“The transcripts tend to be in all sorts of different formats — PDFs, Word documents, scans, you name it — and each requires a slightly different approach. You can't just run a magic piece of code and immediately get them all nice and shiny.”

She adds that the project's second phase will launch a direct creation interface. This will format transcripts while being created. 

” […] we also foresee that a lot of organisations and individuals will have existing transcripts that they want to publish. We're keen to see this happen, but we know that the biggest task will be transforming them into a format we can use. Not impossible, just (often) labour-intensive,”

Robert Sharp also comments on his blog about SayIt's launch. “It is this sort of thing that empowers grassroots campaigns and catalyses democracy,” he writes, in addition to explaining why it has him enthused. 

Readers of this blog will know how irritated I get with the quality of parliamentary and government papers online.  Transcripts and other documentation are frequently uploaded as PDFs, as if the only thing a researcher or campaigner plans to do with the document is print it. 

On the other hand, Mark Ballard writes about SayIt's launch on the Computer Weekly blog, Public Sector IT. He places it in the context of British politics, where not long ago the governing Conservative Party erased 10 years worth of transcripts from the internet. CW spoke with the founder and director of MySociety, Tom Steinberg, who among other things expressed

“The whole business of transcripts – whether its parliament or celebrity interviews – needs bringing up to speed. It's woefully old-fashioned. We want people all over the world to find out when powerful people talk about things that matter to them. If someone is talking about your road in a local government meeting today, you will never know. […] structured data is what makes each Tweet a beautifully-structured thing. It's what makes Facebook work. And it's what makes everything on the internet work. But as of today transcripts are not structured at all

Diverse netizens from around the world have also displayed their hopes in seeing how the tool works. 

Three examples taken from U.K. archives have been put up in order to give us an idea of how SayIt works: The Leveson Inquiry, an investigation into the ethics of Britain's press; The Charles Taylor Trial, judgement for war crimes against Liberia's former president; and the Plays of Shakespeare (you can search them using any key word, by speaker, or by speech). In addition, a pair of short guides have been published for non-technical readers and for developers as a way to help in the process of uploading a transcript.

The people at MySociety say in a blog post that SayIt can be a great aide in publishing transcripts and documenting local board meetings, court audiences, electoral campaigns, interviews, discussion groups on academic research, academic seminars, conferences, re-inactments, discussion groups on market studies, and historical event archives, such as a coronation or an important debate. 

There are certainly a lot of possibilities. One waits to see how civil society, activists groups, or even common citizens will use it. On a final note, here's a recent Google hangout with MySociety's director, Tom Steinberg, talking about SayIt. 

Original post published in Juan Arellano's blog, Globalizado [es] 


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