We are experiencing interesting times politically in the UK. Maybe many at one point were happy to elect a Member of Parliament once every five years and pretty much let them get on with it. Talking about politics could make people feel uncomfortable, but a wave of recent events such as the expenses scandal and the Digital Economy Act have started to change that. With the election producing a hung parliament every vote of an MP could make or break proposed legislation, but do you know how your MP is voting? There are already excellent websites where you can find this out, but recently I started to wonder if an Internet TV platform like Boxee could be useful in this area, so I built an experimental “app” to try the idea out. Could finding out how your MP votes be like checking the football scores on Ceefax?
First I should say that I am a Boxee fan and like this platform a lot, but this idea could be built on many other set top box platforms too. One of the nice aspects of Boxee that sometimes does not get talked about much is that it is an opportunity to experiment with what it means to bring the Internet to your TV set. As the platform is open and you can use existing web skills to create apps with it, the chance is there to push the boundaries and try out new ideas. I'm sure you could build this application on many other platforms though.
So why Internet enabled TV? It is a special opportunity, many may feel uncomfortable using traditional computer technology but there is mass public acceptance of set top box technology, a point backed up by the adoption of digital TV which according to research by OfCom is now in 91.4% of UK homes. These set top boxes are becoming more powerful, and some now ship with network ports to connect to the Internet. Games consoles too are becoming network enabled, last year the BBC made the shock announcement that the Sony Playstation 3 accounted for about 10% of traffic to their iPlayer service. So if there is going to be a mass acceptance of various Internet on TV technologies by a wide range of people there could soon be an interesting opportunity here to keep people up to date with what their politicians are up to without demanding special skills and from the comfort of their sofas.
After watching the Digital Economy Bill debate and reading @goodvote's ideas for a Digital Parliament I started to wonder about how the power of a platform like Boxee could be used to increase awareness of an MPs activities in Parliament with their constituents. I decided to start with something fairly simple and wrote an application that pulls in some of the information from They Work For You and The Public Whip, both excellent sites, and attempt to provide an experience on a TV that could make a constituent more aware of what their MP is doing. Voting records seemed a good place to start and some basic information about the MP and how you might find out more seemed like a good mix.
I had to be fairly selective about what information to show as an odd aspect of displaying information on a TV screen is that you can't really display that much text as the reader is likely to be too far from the screen to see small detail. This factor also influences how such an app has to be designed and is known as the ten foot user interface, all lessons learnt while I was working as part of the team that developed the Open University Boxee application. In some ways the constraints you deal with when working with this type of interface are very similar to mobile devices.
When the user first installs the app in Boxee they are asked for their postcode. This is then remembered so there is no need to enter it each time (although it can be changed easily). The two websites mentioned above are then queried in turn to find out about the MP for that post code and their voting history. The app does not offer a lot of functionality, instead the idea is that it is something you might check briefly in between watching your favourite podcasts so it is kept as simple as possible. The app is designed to blend in with Boxee, this was deliberate to make it feel like something not out of the ordinary, just a part of the experience of using that platform. The video embedded at the end of this blog post shows the app in action.
Part of the reason I attempted writing this app was for the challenge. It is different from most Boxee apps in that it does not aim to bring multimedia content to the screen but instead text. I didn't want to have a server component to this either, so the app has to take care of downloading the data and processing it. In the case of They Work For You this meant using their API with which will provide the information about the MP. The voting records were a bit more tricky, these are in fact screen scraped from The PublicWhip, if I was to spend more time on the app I would probably find a way to use the downloads they provide. Thankfully Boxee provides Python to app developers so it is possible to do all of this client side. It was a bit challenging at times as I had some problems with getting certain parts of the code to work but one of the wonderful things about open source is that you can look at other people's code and learn how they coped with such challenges, and that is exactly what I did.
It is still rather buggy so I need to clean up the source code and iron out the issues, but if there is interest I'm happy to release it as open source software. There are a lot of improvements that it could do with as well such as support for languages other than English and support for the other types of representatives. Of course I would be very pleased to hear any ideas of how application like this could be used or how this application could potentially be improved.
I'm wondering what else could be done in this context, could there be an opportunity to provide feedback to MPs? Could MPs use applications like this to ask their constituents for their opinions of topics of the day? My app is really just meant as a small step in this direction, but for now I'll be using it to see how my new MP votes.