Akoma Ntoso (“linked hearts” in Akan language of West Africa) defines a set of simple, technology-neutral electronic representations of parliamentary, legislative and judiciary documents for e-services in a worldwide context and provides an enabling framework for the effective exchange of “machine readable” parliamentary, legislative and judiciary documents such as legislation, debate record, minutes, judgements, etc.
Providing access to primary legal materials, parliamentary works and judiciaries documents is not just a matter of giving physical or on-line access to them. “Open access” requires the information to be described and classified in a uniform and organized way so that content is structured into meaningful elements that can be read and understood by software applications, so that the content is made “machine readable” and more sophisticated applications than on-screen display are made possible.
The opportunity to make visible the structures and semantic components of parliamentary, legislative and judiciary documents to software applications means to be able to use the huge capacity of ICTs to manipulate documents not as just plain undifferentiated text but in their structure and semantic components so that high value information services can be developed to assist institutions and citizens to better play their respective roles.
Akoma Ntoso fulfils the citizens’ right to access parliamentary and judiciary proceedings and legislation by providing “open access” and advanced functionalities like “point-in-time” legislation through standardised representations of data and metadata in the parliamentary and judiciary domain and mechanism for citation and cross referencing of legal documents to also improve data exchange and document life cycle automation.
The Akoma Ntoso logo is symbol used by the Akan people of West Africa to represent understanding and agreement, “linked hearts” or Akoma Ntoso.
leverage ICTs to radically improve the quality of their services and to improve access to all Parliamentary information.
In the Information Age, Parliaments, Courts, etc. are striving to leverage modern information and communications technologies to radically improve the quality of their services and to improve access to all Parliamentary information as a strategic resource for the young and active democracies.
Parliaments and courts have been engaged and have been committed to introducing information and communications technologies (ICT) into their organisations for some years now. Up to now, however, the focus has been primarily directed towards the electronic dissemination of parliamentary documents, laws and judgements online with little or no attention to more sophisticated services (such as hypertextual access, semantic search, cross-jurisdictional linking, time-constrained access to in-force legislation, etc.) that are based on the need to introduce standards and guidelines as a requirement for both effective management of information and long term preservation of formal documentation.
In the new context created by ICTs in terms of information management and global accessibility of information, the need for standardised document formats is not just a desirable practice but a necessity in order to develop information systems that can exploit the unprecedented opportunities of ICTs and support the exchange of information and collaboration.
The present situation sees lack of uniformity in the preparation and structuring of parliamentary, legislative and judicial documents and more specifically with regard to the electronic environment, the lack of standards in the metadata sets, the lack of shared referencing mechanisms, etc. Furthermore, the focus so far has been mainly on ”publication”, meant as an activity which simply involves making available online the electronic counterparts of the traditional paper documents, without proper consideration of the opportunities provided by new ICTs and mark-up languages.
Parliaments and courts are continually confronted with demands for ever-greater transparency in the interactions between the electors and the elected, between the courts and the civil society. Also, they have to understand how to manage information and documents in a way that improves transparency and access, at the same time permitting greater understanding of the democratic and judiciary process.
Improved access to documents regarding parliamentary and judiciary activities enables citizens to hold Parliaments accountable, stimulates greater efficiency and enhances democracy and transparency in the actions of parliaments and courts, thereby providing further safeguards to equitable justice and citizens’ trust.
Parliaments and courts are major producers of data and information that are vital for the democratic well-being of a country and the lifeblood of political participation. The lack of a standardised way for parliamentary, legislative and judiciaries bodies to classify, structure, publish and make reference to their documents, information resources and business processes stands in the way of increased integration of information exchange and also of social and economic integration.
The explosion of Internet-based systems have increased the possibilities and range of such services but this can be achieved and exploited only if common standards to produce, classify and share parliamentary, legislative and judiciary electronic documents are agreed and used by parliaments and judiciary bodies.
In conclusions, there is a need to promote high level access to parliamentary, legislative and judiciaries documents to foster greater co-operation between different institutions and to use common open standards that avoid vendor lock-in and increase public access to information.
“meaning” and “structure” of every element in a parliamentary, legislative or judiciary document will be available to software applications.
Although each Parliament and court system has its unique characteristics, all parliamentary democracies have a number of characteristics in common: Actors, Structures, Procedures, Acts and Information Processes are in many ways comparable. Akoma Ntoso defines common building blocks for these concepts in a single model that can be applied to all (or, at least, most) parliamentary, legislative and judiciary documents.
Akoma Ntoso defines a set of recommendations and guidelines for e-services in a world-wide context. This framework is an essential prerequisite for interlinking and web-enabling Parliaments and Courts. It addresses information content and recommends technical policies and specifications for connecting information systems across countries.
Country Parliaments and Courts should use the guidance provided to supplement their national e-Government Interoperability Frameworks with a world-wide dimension and thus enable world-wide interoperability of Parliaments. AKOMA NTOSO is meant to supplement, rather than replace, national interoperability guidelines that may exist in loco by adding to them a world-wide dimension.
This initiative enables open access to information by focussing on both “semantic” and “technical” interoperability at the document level.
- Semantic interoperability is concerned with ensuring that the precise meaning of exchanged information is understandable by any person or application receiving the data. The majority of Akoma Ntoso’s efforts are dedicated to this area.
- Technical interoperability is aimed at ensuring that all Akoma Ntoso-related applications, systems and interfaces are based on a shared core of technologies, languages and technical assumptions easing data interchange, data access and reuse of acquired competencies and tools. Akoma NtosoO ensures technical interoperability by enforcing the use of open standards and open document formats, all of whom are based on the XML (eXtensible Markup Language) language, whose specifications are a world-wide standard and for which numerous tools and applications have been developed and are widely available.
By adopting Akoma Ntoso specifications, parliamentary and court system designers can ensure interoperability between systems while at the same time enjoy the flexibility to select different hardware, and systems and application software to implement solutions.
Presentation, Structure and Semantics
There are four aspects to any document that are relevant to mention, and this is also true for parliamentary, legislative and judiciary documents:
- Content – the actual set of words and punctuation that form the sentences of the text;
- Presentation – how the information looks, e.g. the colour of the text used in the document, the font used in the headings and other such formatting issues;
- Structure – how the information is organized, e.g., the identification of some parts of text as headings, some parts as clauses, etc.;
- Semantics – what the information represents or means;
Online publishing of documents has long been confined to presentation issues. Documents have been put on line trying to replicate as much as possible the layout and formatting of paper. The way a document looks is very important to the “human reader” but does not really provide much useful information to the computer to actually “use” a document the way a knowledgeable human being could do.
The development of descriptive markup meta-languages such as XML allows to add information to any document that would make both the structure and the semantics of a document “usable” by a computer. Computers do not have the kind of experience and knowledge that allow professional human being to be able to deduct structure and semantics from a document unless this document has been previously “marked up” to make it “machine readable”.
- Structural markup – refers to the categorizing of different parts of a text based on their role in organizing the document (e.g., sections and clauses, preambles and attachments, headings and bodies, etc.)
- Semantic markup – refers to the categorizing of different parts of a text based on their meaning with regard to the topic of the document (e.g., provisions, definitions, reference, names, dates, places, etc.) Sometimes structural and semantic markup overlap, e.g. in a parliamentary document a Question or a Motion is both a specfic structure within the document, as well as a semantic indication of the content that will be found therein.
Akoma Ntoso provides a way to move digital documents from the presentation to the semantic era. Digital parliamentary, legislative and judiciary documents are not just displayed online, they are now “understood” by software applications and used for a myriad purposes. Both the “meaning” and “structure” of every element in a parliamentary, legislative or judiciary document are available for all applications to access, thus providing the unprecedented opportunity to exploit the speed and accuracy of ICTs to manage, access and distribute such documents.