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BBC launches new parliament website

Today sees the launch of a new a major new website from the BBC.

Democracy Live provides access to video coverage of the Houses of Parliament, all the devolved British legislatures and the European Parliament.

Bringing together live and archived historical video coverage for the first time, the site is an attempt to both open up the workings of parliaments to voters, and educate the public about the work of British political institutions.

Upon loading the site visitors are met with a ‘video wall’ of all the chambers covered.

The site also provides visitors with the ability to track the activity of up to five MPs, giving voters an easy method of checking up on their representatives’ contributions to parliamentary debate.

For example, a Scottish voter will be able to track their MP, MEP and MSP, along with two other parliamentarians that interest them, such as the prime minister or a secretary of state.

But what the BBC is most proud of is the ability to search the archive of parliamentary debates and business for specific words and issues.

At the heart of the service is the innovative ‘speech-to-text’ technology that enables users to jump directly the point in the video content where the phrase they search for is spoken, rather than having to sit through long passages of business.

Various tools have long been available to search the transcripts of what has been said by Britain’s lawmakers, but this will be the first service that applies that principle to video.

Certainly an impressive piece of kit, as not even the most ardent fan of the House of Commons is likely to want to sit through the entire second reading of a Bill on the off chance an MP mentions their street name or local school.

Mark Coyle, launch editor BBC Democracy Live, told ePolitix.com that he believed this to be a first.

“To the best of our knowledge this is the first time speech-to-text has been used to enable people to access more efficiently and directly proceedings of a democratic institution,” he said

Still in its infancy the accuracy of speech-to-text is usually expected to be around 80 per cent.

Meaning that out of 100 words it would be doing well to get 80 of those 100 words recognised and accurately transcribed.

Obviously proud of his site, Coyle believes the service provided to Democracy Live by video search engine firm blinkx is closer to 90 per cent.

While the appeal to journalists, lobbyists and PR executives is obvious, the BBC may face a tougher time making the site widely used by members of the general public.

Coyle recognises the need to “break out of that circle” of a relatively small group of Westminster insiders and political anoraks.

And he believes the service is “right at the heart” of the BBC’s core public service values.

Democracy Live is imagined as a “low use, high value” service for the licence fee payer.

Coyle does not anticipate that the public will use the site frequently, but when they do he wants them to gain quick and significant insight that they would not previously have been able to achieve.

“We might not attract vast numbers, but the appreciation value is high because when they come to it they can do something easily they could never have done before,” he said.

He is especially proud of the application of the technology to the Welsh language, something which has never been done before.

This, Coyle feels, demonstrates the corporation’s commitment to the devolved governments of the United Kingdom.

Users will also be able to embed many of the videos on their websites and blogs, a feature that is aimed at helping to generate debate about previously overlooked obscure items of parliamentary business.

While some parliamentarians may not be too keen on greater scrutiny of their activity, the website is designed to prompt increased debate and access to the institutions.

Interestingly only the devolved legislatures and the European parliament have agreed to this aspect of the site so far. Perhaps protective over copyright and control, the two Westminster authorities have yet to agree to let their business be shared beyond the BBC.

But Coyle maintains he is optimistic that there will be a positive outcome “for both sides”.

For Coyle and Democracy Live, the real test will be whether the site manages to aid in widening the debate to include a sizeable number of the voting public, rather than just be another tool in the bloggers arsenal, as useful as that may be.

Visit Democracy Live at www.bbc.co.uk/democracylive