Scouring the Net to Find Information Hidden From You

Are MKs voting as they say they are? What exactly is included in the state budget? And what buildings are planned for your neighborhood?

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
A robot lab (illustration.)
A robot lab (illustration.)Credit: Reuters
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

A pack of “Electronic Knights” has been let loose to roam the Israeli Internet.

Known in Hebrew as Hashmabirim - a mashup of two words, “hashmal” (electricity) and “abir” (knight,) but also loosely based on Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem’s Cyberiad robots - these digital robots are a project from the nonprofit Public Knowledge Workshop, a three-year-old organization dedicated to opening up government information to the public in a way that is accessible to everyone using technology.

One of the robots mines data on building plans, another tries to penetrate the walls of silence surrounding the meetings and decisions of the Ministerial Committee on Legislation and a third collects Facebook posts of Knesset members and compares them to their other parliamentary work, including how they vote.

The place they call home is the National Library in Jerusalem.

“We think that access to information and data is a basic right in a democratic regime and today it is impossible to say that the price of producing information is too high, so it is okay not to do it,” said Noam Castel, the community coordinator for the workshop in Jerusalem.

“The main reason for locating [Hashmabir] inside the National Library is that it is the meeting point between activism, technology and government. We are located 10 minutes walk from the government offices and institutions and that is no coincidence.”

The first two “electronic knights” were born even before the workshop was founded: the Open Knesset project, which “ datamines all Knesset activity from the official Knesset website to allow tracking of voting, legislation and committee activities,” and the Open Budget project, which provides public access to all parts of the state budget.

Other robots that are being worked on in the workshop’s lab, situated in the Google campus in Tel Aviv, include an Open Train project - a smartphone application that studies the on-time performance of Israel Railways - and Open Pension, which will be a database on the investments for the public’s pensions.

The Jerusalem community began operating eight months ago and it recently opened its “Hub,” a sort of open lab that invites programmers and social activists to join together to create more robots for the public good. Last week, some 15 people met for an all-night session dedicated to various developments.

Despite the seemingly anti-institutional inclination of the projects, the organization has had a surprisingly warm acceptance from government. The National Library gave them a small room - with transparent glass walls, appropriately - and a number of politicians, including Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and former Likud Minister Michael Eitan, support them. A number of the robots operate on government servers with the full cooperation of the relevant ministries.

Nir Yariv, one of the lab programmers, was in the public eye a year ago when he and a partner developed a smartphone app - within 24 hours and for free - which helped parents find local Well Baby clinics during the polio vaccination campaign. Yariv developed his free app after the Health Ministry paid a company 118,000 shekels to do the same thing in a week.

He is now working with architect Yair Assaf-Shapira to revolutionize access to public planning information. Today, the law requires planning and building committees to notify neighbors of local plans by placing signs on the street and publishing ads in the newspapers. But such ads are only decipherable by a few experts. The average citizen does not have a clue about the likely implications of any such plan on his surroundings. It is also very difficult for the nonprofessional to follow the plans on the websites of the Interior Ministry or Israel Lands Authority.

“When you see a notice on the street you don’t really understand what is happening; it is phrased in a rather unclear way,” explains Yariv. “You can go to city hall and get the material, but most people won’t make the effort, and those who do make the effort are those with an interest,” he said.

The new tool, designed by Yairv and Assaf-Shapira, includes an interactive map. All you need do to find any relevant building plan is touch the area in question on the map. You can also get updates on Twitter, with a Facebook interface on the way.

Another digital robot was enlisted to expose the activities of one of the most powerful - and most secretive - bodies of Israeli democracy: The Ministerial Committee on Legislation. “This is the forum in which the ministers decide the coalition’s position and, in fact, which legislation will pass [the Knesset],” says Sefi Keller, developer of the robot.

“We come to Knesset members and ask why they voted they way they did on a certain law and they cover themselves, justifiably, by claiming coalition discipline. The problem is in the place where coalition discipline is determined; we don’t know how they voted.”

For now, the robot will gather information from two ministers who have promised to release their voting records in the committee: the chairwoman, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, and Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat. Housing and Construction Minister Uri Ariel has said he will also publicize his voting record and the idea is to put pressure on other ministers to do the same.

Another project is not political, but historical and cultural. The idea is to make a huge database at the National Library - the over one million pages from the Jewish press that have been scanned and coded at the library - accessible to everyone. The problem to date has been the unavailability of the information in a format that search engines can utilize. “Cultural knowledge is also public knowledge,” says Castel. The goal, he said, is to return an appropriate page from the 1950s, say, when a child doing research on his family roots enters his grandfather’s name in Google.

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