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VLOS vs. 2.0, the next level in reporting

Herbert Houdijk and Matthijs Bakker (the Netherlands)

The third contribution is the presentation by Mr. Herbert Houdijk and Mr. Matthijs Bakker, aided by Mr. Arash Ahmadi.

Mr. Herbert Houdijk introduces “something completely different” as the subject of this presentation: VLOS, which stands for, in Dutch/Flemish, VerslagLegging Ondersteunend Systeem or, in English, Reporting Support System. He is a staff member with the Dutch Parliamentary Reporting Office and as such responsible for the VLOS system. Co-presenter is Mr. Matthijs Bakker, who presented the first version of VLOS at the Paris conference in 2011. He is a senior reporter with the Reporting Office and a member of the project team which was closely involved in the development of this new version of the VLOS system. Last but not least, Mr. Arash Ahmadi, who is the lead architect of the development team and responsible for the technical development of the system, contributes to the presentation.

Mr. Herbert Houdijk considers the 2.0 version of VLOS, the next level in reporting. On his first working day in Parliament, on the 1st of November 1971, Mr. Herbert Houdijk entered the ranks of the Stenographers’ Office as a trainee stenographer/reporter. What he saw, were: notes made by using shorthand, reports written by using typewriters, uncorrected reports published the next day, and an overall workflow oriented to paper. A jump into the 21st century shows a different picture: hand typewriters have been replaced with computers, and an application called StenoService has been introduced, which works with templates within Word documents. On this basis, the Dutch Parliamentary Reporting Office started the development of the first version of VLOS (1.3), still based on the idea of using templates and working within MS Word document structures.

Nowadays the picture is even different in a world that is changing faster and faster. What do we see in parliament nowadays? Members and MPs using tablets and smartphones. Ongoing debate on social networks like Twitter and Facebook. There is a need for information that is immediately accessible and open to the public. There is a need for an immediately accessible digital report. For environmental reasons, people use and want less paper.

To meet the needs of the fast developing world of information the Dutch Parliamentary Reporting Office decided to build a completely new version of the VLOS system, called 2.0. The four major elements are structure, logging, editing and revision.

  1. The first step was to take a close look at the structure of a plenary meeting of parliament (i.e. agenda, terms, speakers, motions, interruptions et cetera) and of the way reports of these meetings are made. On this basis, the structure of a database was designed.
  2. Using VLOS 1.3 learned that the logging screen wasn’t intuitive enough. While logging, the reporter was already thinking in terms of editing the report. This slowed down the logging and made it more complex than necessary. This meant introducing a more intuitive and faster logging screen.
  3. The new way of working also came with a new editing module, partially relying on MS Word.
  4. A completely new element is the introduction of a revision website. Under VLOS 1.3 the whole revision process was oriented towards paper, sent in and out by mail. Paper is no longer needed when using this website. In this way VLOS 2.0 introduces the possibility of a completely paperless process.

But what happens to the report as a result of all this? Referring to the scene in the motion picture The Matrix (1999), Mr. Herbert Houdijk states “There is no spoon”. This doesn’t mean that the IPRS meeting can be stopped because the Dutch have solved the problem! It simply means that there is a report but not in the way the term “report” was used before, i.e. a paper version of the report document. The change that is required is a change from thinking in terms of paper to thinking in terms of data and databases. So, what is a report? It simply is a view on a database, filled with time loggings, metadata and content, all embedded in XML computer code. By using this code, a report is transformed from a “flat” paper document to a report with many layers in it, which each have their own place and meaning. As a result of this, the report is now free of form. A Word-document, a PDF-document, a HTML-file? It’s all possible. Of course it is still possible to print a version of a report. Also immediate publications are possible on pc, laptop, iPad or smartphone. This means immediate access to reports from every location. The database can also be used to make video streams accessible. The metadata can be used by search machines on the video. The report can even be used to generate subtitles in videos.

Apart from the in-house possibilities, a lot of different parties are very interested in receiving the coded report. The Dutch Parliament wants to present open data to the public. This reuse or third-party use can for instance mean: graphic summaries of debates in word clouds, RSS-feeds, extensive research on debates and collaboration in parliaments. Also figures can be presented to the public in more interesting ways.

So what is the update on VLOS-developments? VLOS 2.0 was launched in the plenary meetings of the Dutch House of Representatives on the 25th of June. A lot of work has been done in building modules to use VLOS for committee meetings. By the end of 2013, the modules for using VLOS in the plenary meetings of the Senate should be ready. Somewhere in 2014, VLOS 2.0 will be used in every meeting of both House and Senate.

Mr. Matthijs Bakker continues the presentation with a live demonstration of the VLOS 2.0 application and puts the spotlight on Mr. Arash Ahmadi as the system developer and one of the main geniuses behind VLOS.

VLOS is a network application. It is currently only operational for the plenary of the Dutch House of Representatives. But, as said, VLOS is expected to be rolled out for both standing committee meetings and the Senate later in 2013. After choosing “plenary”, VLOS produces the homepage on which a meeting workspace can be chosen, dedicated to a single sitting of parliament. VLOS automatically creates these workspaces as soon as the information about a sitting becomes available in the parliamentary information system that is updated by the Secretariat of the House of Representatives. A meeting workspace can be selected by date or by number of the sitting. After choosing a date, VLOS produces another homepage, this time for the site of a plenary sitting. The agenda items with information on the subjects of debate are automatically imported from the parliamentary information system. On the left hand side, this screen displays options that depend on the role of the user in the workflow and on the user’s permissions. For instance, items can be added to the agenda. The texts of agenda items can be completed and alterations can be made. The data entered in the database are then merged with the template that VLOS uses to create a ready-made text fragment in the final report.

Mr. Matthijs Bakker sheds some light on the role of the reporter in working with VLOS. The duty of a reporter is first of all to log the proceedings in the plenary hall. There is no need to make a shorthand transcript. Reporters rely on a digital audio recording but they still have to make notes. That is where VLOS comes in. The program runs on a small computer in the plenary hall. The data entered is synchronized via the network with a database on the VLOS server.

On the logging screen displayed on the computer in the plenary hall, the reporter can log keynotes about speakers and floor actions by clicking pictures and icons. The reporter can enter text as well by keyboarding. Together these digital notes stored in a database via the network constitute a framework for the segment of the proceedings that the reporter must transcribe. The e-logging screen shows the same list of agenda items as edited before.

The first agenda item, the opening, can be selected with a mouse click. Next, the chair is selected by clicking the picture of the chairing MP. VLOS creates an entry in the list of keynotes that can be seen in the right hand column on the logging screen. The next thing to do for the reporter is to identify himself by selecting name and picture in a dropdown menu. This tells the system to assign to this person the job of transcribing the part of the proceedings that corresponds to his of her five-minute turn in the plenary hall. Then the chair opens the first debate. The reporter clicks the agenda item, and as soon as an MP is given the floor, this keynote is logged by clicking the picture of this MP in the box of pictures on the logging screen.

VLOS distinguishes between speeches and interruptions. When an MP is called to deliver his or her speech on the platform, the “speech” icon in the ribbon on top of the logging screen is clicked. Every following MP that the reporter clicks, is filed in the list of keynotes as making an interruption. When a new MP gets the floor, the reporter clicks the “speech” icon again. As the Dutch House of Representatives consists of 150 MPs, it can be something of a challenge to find the right name quickly enough in the box with pictures. To make things easier, a selection can be made beforehand. The reporter usually knows which MPs will participate in a debate. The picture of these MPs can be moved to the upper box on the screen by drag and drop. This drastically reduces the numbers of options. When it is time for a minister to answer, the reporter clicks his or her picture in the box of members of government and presses the “speech” icon. Other keynotes that reporters can log during their five-minute turn include different types of floor actions: tabling a motion, non-verbal utterances such as applauding, or the repeal of an amendment.

The logging screen includes a stopwatch and a bar filling with green. This bar turns red after five minutes, signalling that it’s time for reporters to switch turns. The following reporter simply presses the button named “turn” in the ribbon. The previous five-minute sequence of keynotes is now available to the reporter as a framework in which to transcribe the audio. The reporter who has taken over, can type the first words of his turn in the editing box on the e-logging screen. This makes it easier to find the beginning of a turn when starting transcribing.

If the next agenda item is a vote, VLOS opens a screen which enables the reporter to capture the voting procedure. This is one of the more spectacular new features in VLOS 2.0. The first item put to the vote can be a motion. After clicking the item, VLOS shows an overview of the logos of the different political groups in parliament. The chair rapidly states which parties are in favor. The reporter clicks the corresponding logos. VLOS then calculates the results of the votes so that it is immediately clear if a motion is adopted or rejected.

After his turn in the plenary hall the reporter returns to his desk and opens the VLOS screen to click the link to his part of the report. VLOS then opens a page that contains all the keynotes that a reporter has logged during a five-minute session. This is the framework of a report to be. It is basically a collection of small VLOS-forms that need to be filled in. These serve as an interface for writing structured data into the database. The transcription job of a reporter in VLOS consists of two separate stages, i.e. ensuring that keynotes and metadata such as timestamps, names of speakers and procedural elements are correct, and subsequently transcribing the audio. On the left of the screen a column shows the hierarchy of logged keynotes. This tree allows the reporter to further edit the metadata, for instance by including an inadvertently missed speaker or procedural element.

The second stage, that of editing, finds place on an editing screen which uses the Office 2010 version of Word as a database editor. This document contains the information about the procedural elements, metadata that cannot be changed in Word. Word is only used to type the text of speeches and interruptions in line with the audio. If for instance the reporter did all the work properly during a turn with votes, the document generated by VLOS doesn’t need any further editing. When the reporter is done, he saves the Word file. After closing the editing screen and the forms page, VLOS shows the page with the turn documents. The reporter can then indicate that he has finished his part of the report and submit it to the editors by clicking the button named “finish”. This part now becomes available to the first editor, who checks spelling, typos and other errors. When the text editor has finished proofreading, he submits the part of the report with a mouse click to the following editor, who is specialized in the procedural part of the report. He checks if all the formal statements are correct. As soon as this has been verified, he clicks the “finished” button.

This part of the report is now ready for publication. The editor can generate the report to be published, after which publishing is just a matter of clicking a button. The provisional version of the report is sent to the website of the House of Representatives via the network and is immediately available to the public. In VLOS the document is available in various formats. It can be opened as a Word-file. Also a preview of the HTML-publication on the web is available.

Ms. Marianne van Gool wonders what will happen if the system goes down. Is there any way of working outside VLOS?

Mr. Herbert Houdijk answers that technique can be vulnerable. If the systems fails, the reporters switch to another, slightly outdated system. However, the reports have to be reproduced in VLOS 2.0 to be able to publish it.

Paul Hadlow wants to know how much time is involved with this kind of development.

Mr. Herbert Houdijk answers that the Dutch Parliament started an e-program in 2004. It was about that time that the first thoughts on VLOS appeared. It took a lot of conceptual work before an operational VLOS version, VLOS 1.3., was introduced in September 2011. In June 2013, VLOS 2.0 went live. More techniques will be made available. Speech recognition amongst others is knocking at the door.

A member of the audience wants to know more about the correction website.

Mr. Herbert Houdijk explains that the MPs who spoke in a debate get a link for their use only by email. Opening this link gives them access to their speeches and interruptions, with some context, on the correction website. The link is valid for 24 hours and gives the MPs the possibility to propose corrections in their words. Suggested corrections are highlighted in the text. After 24 hours the website closes, after which the Dutch Parliamentary Reporting Office decides whether these correction proposals are agreed upon.

Mr. Arjan van Hessen asks if there is the option of audio-visual feedback in the correction website.

Mr. Herbert Houdijk thinks that this suggestion will attract too much focus on the differences between the audiotape or videotape and the written report. This feeling may however change in the future.

Mr. Jacek Gilarski asks if video on demand on the basis of the metadata is an option. Can the text of a report also be linked with video?

Mr. Herbert Houdijk assures that it is possible. There is already a website by the Dutch Parliament called DebatGemist (MissedDebate). The public has access to videos of all plenary sessions. VLOS data is used for the search machine on this website. VLOS can also be used as a metadata system for archiving videos. It is ready for the future! Linking the text to video has already been successfully tried by Mr. Arjan van Hessen.

Ms. Rian Schwarz-van Poppel adds that it has only been done as an experiment. It is not a service open to the public yet.

Ms. Lida Hordijk asks how the reports are archived.

Mr. Herbert Houdijk explains that the Dutch Parliamentary Reporting Office is not responsible for the archives. However, there is a program under way on using digital archives.

Ms. Lida Hordijk wants to know if this means no more contributions to the classic Handelingenkamer (Reports Library) in the buildings of Dutch Parliament.

Mr. Herbert Houdijk explains that the Handelingenkamer only has some historic meaning left.

Ms. Rian Schwarz-van Poppel thanks Mr. Herbert Houdijk, Mr. Matthijs Bakker and Mr. Arash Ahmadi for their presentation. She also wants a round of applause for Ms. Kimberly Turnage and Mr. Daniël Tuijnman for voluntarily subtitling on site.

The presentation slides for this presentation are available on our Downloads page.

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