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Life hacking EU websites to find relevant information – my #h4t contribution

Image by Franco Follini - Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0

Given that from what I see the EU Hackathon this week wasn’t really (meant to be) a contribution to more EU transparency, I thought I’d do a little life hack of EU institutions’ websites as my contribution outside the competition. These examples show how Google or other special searches can make your life much – or at least a little – easier when trying to find relevant information in the messy or hard to use maze of EU websites.

Example 1: Finding Members of the European Parliament (MEPs)

a) Usual way of finding the page of an MEP on the EP website: Go to the Europarl website. Click on “Your MEPs” in the top menu. Chose “By name” in the menu on the left. What you get there is a search where you can only search for surnames. Just remember the first name of an MEP? – No chance.

b) Life hack with Google search: Search for full names, like EP president “Jerzy Buzek“. Search for first names, like “Jerzy“. Search for a second name, like “Weber” in combination with “Germany”. Now just replace the names in each search with whatever name you are looking fore.

Example 2: What was on the Commission’s agenda?

a) Usual way of finding recent topics on the Commission’s agenda: Go the Commission website. Choose “The European Commission at work” in the “About the Commission” box. Click on “Weekly Commission meetings” in the “Day-to-day” column. Find the “agenda of the next Commission meeting” link in the text. Select the year “2011” – and there you’ve got the list of all Commission agendas of 2011 in PDF format. Now go through each of the documents to see what was on the agenda.

b) Life hack with Google search: Search for a subject like “agriculture” in all 2011 agendas. Or search for the “Single Market Act” in all agendas (since 2002). Or maybe you want to search for the agenda of “26 April 2005” (note: Commission usually meets on Wednesdays). Or the agenda of the 1870th meeting of the Commission. Just replace the topics, date, number in the search to find what you are looking for.

Example 3: Finding topics in EU Council agendas

a) Usual way of finding topics in past EU Council agendas: The most intuitive way would be to first go to the Council website. One would click on the button “Council Meetings” and one would be confronted with a list of several hundred meeting boxes each of which contains a link “agenda” that would need to be checked to find relevant topics. However, these agendas are “press agendas”, less technical maybe but sometimes lacking import details like document references. And the press area agendas end with 2006.

b) Alternative way of finding topics in past EU Council agendas: On the Council website, one would choose the top menu “Documents“. There one finds the link “Agendas of meetings of Council preparatory bodies“. On the next page there is a link to “the Council of the European Union“, where one can find all the full agendas going back to 1999. In order to find a subject therein without search, one needs to open every individual file.

c) Life hack with Google search: Actually, Google isn’t that helpful in this case, at least I couldn’t figure out a good way to search for topics with the agendas provided in the press area. The Council’s document design and storage is too messy for a simple Google search.

d) Life hack with the advanced Council document search: Actually, the last link in (b) is already a hidden life hack using the Council’s document search. However, in order to find topics in Council agendas, the document search needs to be refined:

On the Council website, one would choose the top menu “Documents“. In the blue top box there is the link “Access to Council documents: Public Register“. Usually the simple search should be enough. Insert “OJ CONS” (stands for Council agendas) into the field “Subject matter” and then put any search term like “Single Market Act” into the field “Words in Text” and search now. Note: The option “Date of meeting” is useless because most agendas are not tagged accordingly. If you want to find a meeting in a specific period (or a topic on the agendas of this period), use the advanced search, do as before but work with the the option “Document date” instead of “Meeting date”. Note that documents are usually issued some days (or even weeks) ahead, so don’t limit your time periods too much.

Example 4: Finding European Parliament Library Briefings

See my post on European Parliament Library Briefings.

Now, these were only some examples of life hacking EU websites. Finding EU information and documents, especially filtering the masses of information, often needs a little creativity. And I’m sure one can come up with even more ideas – would be glad hearing yours!



10 Responses to Life hacking EU websites to find relevant information – my #h4t contribution

  1. avatar Niels says:

    You’re right that the event wasn’t targeted EU legislative transparency problems. I talked with other participants that agreed that it’d have been very interesting to be able to create apps to highlight EU’s own transparency issues, however this was not the setup for the “EUhackathon”. I’d love to see someone arranging an event focused on EU legislative proces, EU institutions and other internal EU transparency problems.

  2. avatar Ronny Patz says:

    It was kind of the expectation raised in my mind when I read the title. We could try to mount something for the re:public 2012 in Berlin…

  3. avatar Niels says:

    Let’s do it! We could make it in two parts. First introducing some known transparency issues in the system for those not already familiar with the EU systems and then some time to come up with realistic solutions. Also one could prepare some structured datasets beforehand and let people use them as they please.

  4. avatar Anne says:

    Well. I know for sure I have several Commission colleagues who have data that they would like to visualize in a better way, but the idea of “hacking” sounds scary to many people in here ;o)

    Must create some internal buzz on what the potential for this stuff is.

    Anne

  5. I’m up for it too. Let me know any details.

  6. avatar 10COM says:

    Making essential governemental information findable for citizens can’t be seen as hacking and shouldn’t be seen that way. It’s an essential democratic right, in legal and political worlds known as ‘freedom of information’ or ‘#opengov’

    People working for public bodies, responsible for this type of tasks, shouldn’t create internal buzz to support non-paid outsiders to develop ‘opengov’ tools. They should demand their bosses for straight, integrated policy with clear budgets. The EU should employ gov2.o teams to create visualisations; smart website search-tools; citizen-interaction api’s etc.

    EU Commissioner Kroes has pointed out in speeches and by presentations of her assistant Buhr, to be supporter of the ‘opengov’ / ‘opendata’ principle. The development of EU internal policy and a plan to execute this, are the next two steps.

  7. avatar Ronny Patz says:

    @10COM:

    1) I fully agree that it’s on governments to become more transparent, that this has to be a fight for open gov and open data. And I’ve been fighting this fight and will continue to do.

    2) The current government and public administration are structures designed for 19th century conditions adapted to solve some 20th century problems. Unless we in civil society in the public show the way through smaller or larger “hacks” – creative solution-finding, data crunching, etc. – these institutions won’t realise how far they are behind and where the change they need to put in place may lead to.

    3) “Life hacking”, whether in the real or the digital world, can also be ways to control governments, to push governments harder than they want. I’m not a believer in the always-good-and-correct government story, and I think civil society has to show where there are problems and has to criticise governments actively. A creative and non-destructive hack from time to time can be one of many helpful tools.

    4) All things have to go together, but I won’t let a slow government prevent me from getting solutions today that it would need one year to solve.

  8. avatar Anne says:

    I am all for reuse of public data but not entirely sure developing the apps should be a main priority for the EU institutions themselves.

    My main concern is that they are expensive to develop and maintain, and that it will take our focus off improving our websites who are already in need of some TLC and from actually making the data available.

    Another problem is how to decide what is a useful application or not? Who is better to decide it? Civil society or civil servants?

  9. avatar 10COM says:

    @ Ronny Patz Like engaged citizenship and development of tools for public use to push slow institutions, show new ways, empower citizens. A bit distanced however on camps, conferences, orgs being founded as PR method by US based-industry under the flag of ‘benefits for all’. (like Google’s eu hackathon.eu or Government20 Netzwerk Deutschland gov20.de)

    @ Anne When we use the term ‘open data’ we don’t mean re-use of public funded data, but data being accessable for citizens. We’re aware of industry lobby using the term ‘opendata’ in the way you’re using it but we think that confusing. The type of data firms want from govs must be seen as a commodity. Firms should pay money for it.

    Back to ‘opengov’. Questiosn you ask are ‘good questions’. That’s why we propose the development of EU policy or guidelines. EU Civil servants as a principle are not allowed to decide ‘on their own’. Democratic governemental institutions have to act within frameworks of a policy, guidelines, rulings, laws. Well made policy and regulations blend the interests of citizens with other interests in a balanced way.

    The development of an integrated policy on EU comms and the new use of www and digital devices will not be done in a year. In the meantime web-teams can work on easy accessable websites and other channels to inform citizens. We’re there for feedback, proposals, support.

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