Public gain greater access to Legco data as online records dating back to 1877 go online

Online records are being stored in readable and accessible formats, but activists want more official information to be made available

PUBLISHED : Friday, 01 November, 2013, 4:29am
UPDATED : Friday, 01 November, 2013, 11:22am

Changes in the way data is presented on the Legislative Council's website should help Hongkongers keep a closer eye on lawmakers' activities, officials and government watchdogs say.

The data put online is now stored in readable and searchable xml and pdf formats, the council's secretary general, Kenneth Chen Wei-on, said. "All this Legco information has been out there on the internet, but was not user-friendly enough. Now, by keeping their formats abreast with technological changes, they are all machine-readable, making us more open to the public."

While legislators and activists said the move was a welcome step in fostering civil monitoring of the government, they renewed their calls for more official information to be made available.

Democratic Party lawmaker Emily Lau Wai-hing said the Legco website change was a necessary first step for Hong Kong.

"The openness of the government and legislature's information has lagged behind by other countries. … We have to match up and make them more accessible and findable," said Lau.

Governance and transparency advocate David Webb called the changes a move in "the right direction".

But he added: "The Companies Registry and Land Registry should make all the documents and registers available for free, like New Zealand has." The information is now put behind a pay wall.

Legco publishes online vast amounts of information, including the record of votes conducted at weekly full council meetings, verbatim recordings of sessions and members' disclosures of interests.

Most of it was in the form of graphics, which had to be converted digitally before any mass-volume analysis could be made.

With the use of the xml format, voting records can now be analysed by statistics software, while verbatim records of what members said - dating from 1877 - are stored in pdf files that allow word searches.

The seemingly small changes will help analysts, journalists and the public gain a better understanding of political parties or individual lawmakers over time, bypassing the need to plough through records manually.

"Members of the public concerned with the work of the legislature can have a better understanding of its past and current policy focuses," said Chen, formerly education undersecretary.

Information technology sector lawmaker Charles Mok said Legco's changes could serve as a pilot programme encouraging the city to work harder at open governance.

"The government should also step up the digitalisation of its information to make it more accessible to the public," he said. "It enhances the checks and balances in civil society."