Canada's 132-year-old Hansard system gets modern-day online upgrade

OTTAWA - Long before there was Facebook or Twitter, the closest thing MPs had to a "status update" was Hansard — the official transcripts of the debates in the House of Commons.

OTTAWA – Long before there was Facebook or Twitter, the closest thing MPs had to a “status update” was Hansard — the official transcripts of the debates in the House of Commons.

But a high-tech facelift for the 132-year-old publication hopes to merge the reporting requirements of old with modern-day technology, transforming what was once just a massive sheaf of paper into a living electronic document.

“The changes in focus over time from paper to electronic — the world is moving on — has also made us think about how we present the information in Hansard,” said Kim Buzzetti, the chief of publishing service for the division of the House of Commons, which handles parliamentary publications.

“The electronic version can have features, can do things, we can make it useful in ways we may not do with the paper … it’s treating them separately, knowing paper is paper and electronic can be what you want it to be.”

Over the last year, a House of Commons team has been recoding the electronic version of Hansard to link together its various elements — text, audio and video — on the same page.

Online video of the Commons, which returns Monday from a week-long Thanksgiving break, has been available to the public since 2004, but it was never indexed; to see a particular MP, a user had to search through the entire day’s material.

Now, video clips pop up next to a transcript of the speech, alongside links to share content on Facebook and Twitter or subscribe to an automatic feed.

The coding behind the website has also been cut up, making it easier for those interested in repurposing parts of Hansard for their own reasons — such as MPs who might want to build a app or put content on their websites.

Getting an electronic Hansard ready for mobile phones is among the next steps being considered by Commons staff, as is making the documents more easily searchable by topic.

It’s a leap forward for the transcripts, which debuted in 1880 after decades of debate over whether such a record should be produced by the House of Commons or just left to the media.

Hansard moved online in 1996, and in 2001, a new computer system was introduced which saw all the different debates that take place on a given day in the Commons brought together into one database, setting the stage for the latest changes.

The new system made its debut on Sept. 11 of that year, making emotionally charged responses to the terrorist attacks in the U.S. that day to be among the first published using the new technology.

The changes unveiled this fall were driven in part by a new demographic reality on Parliament Hill, said Stephan Aube, chief information officer for the House of Commons.

“The fact that there is a younger generation in Parliament, there is a certain expectation that we can provide the infrastructure for allowing them to use these tools,” Aube said.

“We don’t want to be in the position of doing it on their behalf.”

Among those advocating for the changes was Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer, who at 33 is Canada’s youngest-ever Speaker.

“MPs spend a lot of time in Ottawa working on issues of great importance to their constituents,” Scheer said in an email.

“These enhancements to Hansard make this work even more accessible to all Canadians. I am thrilled with it.”

Conservative MP James Bezan already has links to the new features posted on the website for his Manitoba riding.

Bezan said the tools allow constituents to have a broader perspective on what actually goes on in Ottawa.

“People don’t sit watching CPAC all day,” Bezan said. “There’s better things to do and all they are going to catch on the news is the story of the day, which usually involves question period. The debates, committees, are often overlooked.”

Some haven’t waited for Hansard to catch up to technology.

For two years now, Michael Mulley has run the website, which contains all the debates and can be searched in myriad ways, including by MP, keywords or by specific legislation.

Mulley praised the House of Commons efforts — video is an especially welcome addition, as that’s what most people are now looking for on the Internet, he noted — but the changes have been far too long in coming, he said.

“Within its peer group, the House is doing well and has gotten significantly better in the last two or three years, whereas a lot of other government websites have stayed the same since the 1990s,” Mulley said.

“These new features are useful, (but) they’re not revolutionary. None of them take significant technical effort. They should have absolutely been done years ago, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not a good thing that they are happening now.”