CAPE TOWN, 2014/03/07, Jeffrey Kilpin (website developer), speak about the new People's Assembly website namely, 2nd Floor, Associated Magazines building, Cape Town. Reported: Jan / Picture: Adrian de Kock

Cape Town -

A new website, an offshoot of the Parliamentary Monitoring Group (PMG), has been launched to get the public “more involved and engaged” in what happens in Parliament by letting them track the activity of MPs.

The People’s Assembly website went live on February 13, the day that President Jacob Zuma delivered his State of the Nation address.

Since 1995, the PMG has recorded the proceedings of the country’s more than 50 parliamentary oversight committees.

Rashaad Alli, who oversees the People’s Assembly, said he was introduced to the impact of websites that made data about Parliament and MPs easily accessible when he attended |an international “learning exchange” of parliamentary monitoring groups in 2012.

He was impressed by groups such as the UK’s and the US’s Sunlight Foundation, which both kept close tabs on their respective legislatures.

After returning to South Africa, Alli met Geoffrey Kilpin, a UCT post-graduate electrical engineering student, at an open-data hackathon.

Kilpin provided technical input and contributed code to the People’s Assembly website, helping to adapt an open-source platform developed by the UK-based charity, My Society, to be South Africa-specific.

For example, data was “scraped” or extracted from different sources such as PDF files, webpages and Word documents by a computer program. “(The website) essentially brings together lots of different sources of data,” Kilpin told the Weekend Argus yesterday.

While the data is publicly available, it can be difficult to find. The People’s Assembly allows people to find their local constituency representatives by inputting a suburb or street address.

“Beyond that, you can then go look at the MPs themselves,” said Kilpin. “We try to track what they actually do.

“The PMG does a lot of good work in tracking committees by taking very detailed notes. We have gone through that and any mention of a MP in those gets pulled up.”

On the People’s Assembly website, MPs have unique webpages with basic biographies, links to their attendance records in Parliament and which committees they sit on, their contact information, speeches and which parliamentary questions they have submitted.

“Essentially, it’s is a good way of tracking how active your MP is,” said Alli.

The website has also collected copies of the annual register of interests that show what gifts MPs have received.

“(The register) is another source of data that comes in PDF form and can take a while to get through,” said Kilpin. “On the site, we can straight away see disclosures from each year, from 2010 to last year.”

Kilpin said the data could be further refined. “It’s still in the works, but now that we have the data in structured format, we can do things like see who gives a lot of gifts to MPs. We will hopefully have that out in the next few months.”

The website also hosts a blog, where PMG monitors report on newsworthy committee oversight meetings.

Alli said he hoped the blog’s “commentary” section would grow to include in-depth analysis.

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