Tweeting the Public Notices Act

What have we built?

We've created a public notice Twitter bot, @publicnoticesNZ. This bot is in beta, but is the first step to an automated system where you can be notified about public notices published in the New Zealand Gazette, that affect or interest you.

Why have we done this?

Here at InternetNZ we have been working hard analyzing the Telecommunications (New Regulatory Framework) Amendment Bill, and writing our submission to the select committee.

We are excited about the deregulation and withdrawal of the copper network in areas where fibre is installed, because that opens up the chance for wireless and other modes to deliver great Internet services. But we wondered, how will you know if copper is being withdrawn in your area? Turns out, Chorus will be required to post a "public notice", which is one of my bugbears of New Zealand legislation.

In New Zealand, a public notice is defined in the Interpretations Act 1999:

Public notice description as in article

public notification, public notice, or a similar expression in relation to an act, matter, or thing, means a notice published in—

  1. the Gazette; or
  2. 1 or more newspapers circulating in the place or district to which the act, matter, or thing relates or in which it arises

To borrow the definition from the New Zealand Gazette, it is the official newspaper of the Government and is an authoritative journal of constitutional record. It publishes these public notices when there is a legislative requirement to do so.

hard copy of the NZ gazette from 1946

The New Zealand Gazette is divided into commercial and government notices, covering bankruptcies, business proceedings, land notices, parliamentary notices, and notifications from government departments and agencies.

So unless you are reading your local newspaper daily, or even more cumbersome, reading the Gazette daily, how are you meant to know if things of relevance to you are being talked about in public notices?

We decided to see what we could do about that.

How does it work?

The Gazette is a pretty user-friendly website, and all of its notices are in a series of RSS feeds. So we found an open source project called Feedr which can be used to turn RSS feeds into tweets, and we retooled it for our needs.

We've created a public notice Twitter bot, @publicnoticesNZ. Every hour, it scans for any new public notices published in the Gazette, and tweets them out with the appropriate hashtags for the type of public notice it is.

This project is currently in BETA, meaning that it is a prototype and will definitely have some quirks. Our biggest obstacle is the limitations of the Gazette's RSS feed, which doesn't have very detailed fields, and sometimes the titles of the notices are uninformative about which company, person or piece of legislation the notice is about.

When we started this project one of the first questions we asked was "Which server should we run this on?"... Then we remembered that one of the mantras of our team is "Do it this decade" and we decided that it should be done serverless.

For the process mapping nerds:

flow chart of how the NZ Gazette Twitter bot works

 

The system is deployed using three AWS Lambda functions, two AWS Simple Notification Service queues and a DynamoDB table. No servers were harmed in the creation of this service. It also means that there's nothing stopping you running the same system yourself, even if you don't have a spare Raspberry Pi lying around.

Copyright and open government

How come we can just grab the information from the Gazette? The Department of Internal Affairs publishes the Gazette under an open, CC-BY licence. This means anyone can re-use the information in the Gazette, as long as they say where it came from. New Zealand's Government has made some good moves to open up information in this way under the NZGOAL framework. Thanks open Government!

So what can we do with this Twitter bot?

We started this project to answer one question: "Is there a better way to inform the public about commercial and government announcements that may affect them?"

Have we answered the question? Probably not. But we are trying something to see if there is value in it, and have let it loose into the twitterverse. The use cases will emerge as other people tinker with it. We would love to see what you can come up with.

 

Check out our GitHub Repo here (and feel free to make pull requests to make this project better!): https://github.com/InternetNZ/PublicNoticesNZ

And visit our beta public notice bot here: https://twitter.com/PublicNoticesNZ