A Tool for Open Government in Hungary
A spotlight on Parliamentary Debates Open, a 2018 Global Sprint participant
In the recent and controversial Hungarian elections, planned construction of a nuclear power plant was a contentious issue. The proposed plant sparked debate over finances, energy, and environmental impact.
But when journalists sought to compare Hungarian lawmakers’ current views on the issue with views they expressed in past years, it proved a challenging task.
“The search function on the Hungarian parliament website is completely useless,” says Borbála Tóth, a Hungarian data analyst and participant in Mozilla’s 2018 Global Sprint. Tóth says the National Assembly search tool mainly offers up unhelpful URLs — it doesn’t trawl the content of actual parliamentary debates.
As a result, Tóth says, debates about critical topics like taxes, foreign policy, and healthcare remain inaccessible. Journalists are hampered, and lawmakers are less accountable.
It’s a problem Tóth and a cadre of other open-source scientists and engineers are seeking to solve with Parliamentary Debates Open. The tool, currently in the development stage, scrapes and processes National Assembly debates dating back to 1990 using Natural Language Processing.
“The minimal viable product is a filterable dashboard with name, topic, party, and date for relevant speeches,” Tóth says. “Additional features may include histograms and comparisons.” Already, a preliminary analysis of debate data has yielded insight into which topics — say, the national budget or education — are most prevalent in certain years.
“The primary audience is journalists,” Tóth says. “They can use it for their daily work.” Indeed, her inspiration for the project was several conversations with Hungarian journalists, who lamented the difficulty of tracking down politicians’ prior statements.
“The typical use case is to look at what politicians said in the past, and confront them,” Tóth continues. “He says this now, but said that back in the day.”
Tóth and András Kálmán, Dániel Kántor, György Orosz and Zoltán Varjú — all volunteers — began work on the project in 2017 in partnership with K-Monitor, the Hungarian civil society organization that uses technology to thwart government corruption. “We’re all working in our free time,” Tóth says. The team is currently tweaking the back and front ends; they plan to introduce the tool to reporters in coming months.
By participating in the Global Sprint, the Parliamentary Debates Open team is seeking inspiration for new features. “There might be ideas we haven’t thought of,” Tóth says.
They’re also hoping other activists and journalists will adopt the tool for use in their own countries. “That has been the plan from the very beginning,” Tóth explains. “All the code is on GitHub.”