At the time this article was written Peter
Brannan was Chief of Hansard and Editor of Debates for the Ontario Legislative
Soon after the inception of the Ontario Hansard
Reporting Service as a full time operation in 1970, we, as editors, felt
pressure to transform our typewritten transcription of debates to some
machine-readable form, for improved economy and convenience. Most of the people
we talked to in the computer business, however, both company salesmen and
Ministry of Government Services consultants, seemed patently overoptimistic
about the savings that could be achieved in time, labour and printing costs.
Most of the promised savings arose from
projected reductions in staff primarily in transcribers (or, as the experts
insisted on calling them, typists). It seemed to us that as long as the speed
of operation was restricted by some other factor in the case of Hansard
transcription, by the difficulties of deciphering or presenting the taped
debate then the increase in output due to word processing would not be as great
as it might be in more routine typing jobs. We dismissed claims of "at
least a thirty per cent increase in production" as fiction, and our stand has
been justified in the light of experience.
In the early seventies, we had a relatively
new staff of transcribers. The equipment they used for transcription from the
audio tape was primitive, and the transcribers had their hands full without
being exposed to the problems of an operational changeover.
We were told repeatedly that by converting
to word processing and video display terminals we would be spared the chore of
having to retype our material. In fact, we never needed to retype material,
since our printer was able to accept the manuscripts, with all their corrected
errors and editorial changes, and convert them to printed form via Linotype
We made enquiries through other provincial
jurisdictions and in Ottawa, and discovered that our printing costs were in
fact, competitive (even advantageous) compared with other Hansard operations
where computer systems were in use.
Some years later, with our operation running
smoothly through the efforts of a trained and competent staff, we were again
persuaded to look at the introduction of word processing as a means of
arresting escalating printing costs.
The Queen's Park Computing Branch of the
Ministry of Government Services produced an extensive report on the possible
computerization of Hansard. Its recommendation was that we should use the
computing branch's central computer for the processing and storage of our
material. After careful consideration, we decided we did not want to depend
upon an outside computer system. The cost of renting the terminals, plus
storage capacity, was likely, as well, to be excessive in comparison with the
cost of smaller, self-contained computer systems available.
Our cost concern was justified by subsequent
experience in other places. The Alberta Hansard operation employed a system in
conjunction with its central government computer for several years; its costs
were almost double ours, although the reliability of its system left something
to be desired. Alberta has now adopted an in-house word processing system.
We were convinced, finally, that we must
adopt some new technology; and as a first step we introduced a word processing
terminal in our indexing section. It was connected online to a mainframe
computer at a reliable Toronto typesetting company. This enabled us to get a
feel for word processing, and to test the reliability of the equipment.
Although the system worked reasonably well, there were occasional mainframe
breakdowns, plus some limitation on the times the computer could be accessed.
These were not serious problems in the indexing application; but such hold-ups
would not have been acceptable in our day-to-day reporting operations.
Some time later, we decided to experiment
with the installation of a small, pilot, word processing operation in the
transcribing area. Drawing largely on the experience of the British Columbia
Hansard service, we chose the Micom system, and rented six standalone word
processing screens and two printers. The advantage of this system from our
point of view was that each terminal was independent, with its own memory, so
that any failures affected only individual operators and positions. Our choice
was prompted by the fear of a general breakdown with disastrous consequences
for the rapid production of the report of debates.
We persevered with Micom for the contracted
rental period but became convinced that the heavy traffic in diskettes caused
more trouble and greater damage than the benefits from the standalone aspect of
the system were worth. We moved away from our almost psychopathic desire for
security by experimenting with a rival system offering a small central computer
to which all terminals are linked for the storage and exchange of information.
Economic considerations, together with the
fact that the Manitoba Hansard operation had adopted the Wang system after a
study of available equipment, led to the rental of a small Wang installation
for our second experiment. We set this up in our Committee section, so that
House Hansard production would not be affected by a general breakdown; but our
experience with the Wang over the period of a one-year rental erased most of
our fears regarding computer failure. We became convinced that, in this
instance at least, the manufacturers were justified in their claims regarding
the reliability of their equipment.
The great advantage, from the Hansard
viewpoint, of having a Central Processing Unit (or computer) is that material
can be inserted at a number of terminals in the transcribing area and extracted
by editors immediately afterwards, using terminals in another area, without any
shuffling or transporting of diskettes. Other advantages of the central system
include the ability to insert programs to assist and expedite the transcribing
and editing process. Sections of standardized format can be inserted by using
two or three keys and other services, such as 'global search and replace' and a
dictionary check, can be utilized.
Not least of the considerations in an
operation of Hansard size, when comparing standalone systems with the CPU
installation, is the fact that individual terminals attached to a CPU are much
cheaper than stand alone terminals, such as the early Micoms.
Still preoccupied by the need for caution
and backup, we adopted the Wang system but installed an additional CPU in our
House section so that we had two separate computer installations. The rationale
for this was twofold: we needed the larger number of ports (connections to the
CPU) afforded by the two systems to enable us to install an adequate number of
terminals, printers, communication systems, etc.; and the acquisition of the
separate system afforded the back up we needed. The plan was that, if our House
system went down', we would move the House operation to the Committee section
on an emergency basis.
Subsequently we installed an additional disc
drive for the House system, which, in addition to doubling our storage
capacity, provides backup in the event of damage or breakdown affecting the
main disc drive. During the past two years of use, however, we have experienced
only minor breakdowns of relatively short duration, and have not had to resort
to transferring the House operation to the Committee section.
As a further backup, we have established
two-way communication between the computers, via Bell Telephone datalink. The
main function of the datalink is to transmit copy to the commercial printer. It
has, however, the further advantage of enabling us to exchange material between
the two systems.
Our external communication system enables us
to send copy to any commercial printer or word processing company that has the
appropriate datalink receiver. It also affords us an unforeseen benefit. We
occasionally receive a large volume of typed answers to written questions of
ministries, which must be included in the Hansard report. We usually have time
to keyboard this material ourselves; but, if not, we can send it to one of the
word processing service companies in Toronto and (provided it was typed in an
acceptable typeface) have them process it through an Optical Character Reader.
The resulting input can then be transmitted back into our CPU via the datalink.
One possible future development for Hansard
would be the acquisition of an Optical Character Reader in-house, so that we
could avoid having to rekey-board such documents, and could offset the cost of
relying upon outside agencies.
A spinoff benefit from the Wang installation
has been utilization of its capacity by other branches of the Office of the
Assembly. One terminal, shared by the Administration Office and the Office of
the Speaker, and a second in use by the Library, are hooked into our CPU by
cable laid by Hansard technicians. This additional use of Hansard's computer is
a feature that could be expanded in the future.
As a general observation, the installation
of the Wang system has greatly benefited the Hansard Reporting Service and the
people it serves. Probably the most tangible benefit has been the production of
clean committee transcripts.
Since these committee reports are not formally
printed they had previously been produced as rough draft transcripts, with any
alterations or editing written in freehand, and then photocopied for
distribution. With the advent of word processing, all corrections or editorial
changes are made in the system before the final printout. Copy delivered to the
user is now, therefore, much more legible and presentable.
The question of increased production is a
more complex one. There is no doubt the transcriber output increased after the
initial training period.
No conscientious typist likes to see
mistakes in his or her output and this breeds a certain caution that results in
reduced speed. Knowing that any mistakes can be instantly eradicated helps the
typist to go faster, particularly when dealing with relatively straightforward
transcription such as a continuing speech. The absence of any carriage return
and the capacity for inputting sections of procedural format through the use of
one or two keys, as already mentioned, help to speed up the work. Further,
there is no paper to be inserted and no completed file to be delivered to
another point in the office. The whole process has been streamlined and
Perhaps the greatest advantage of the word
processor keyboard over the typewriter in the Hansard environment has been the
elimination of the clatter of 12 or 15 typewriters, making for a much more
comfortable and efficient workplace.
Word processing was introduced, gently, as
an experiment; but was quickly and widely accepted by the transcribing staff
with just one exception. One individual was opposed to working at the terminal
and, although given other duties in the office, subsequently resigned her
position. We had few, if any, complaints about physical discomfort or
eyestrain: but we soon implemented the policy of providing special eyeglasses,
at the employer's expense, for people who normally wear bifocals or who had any
difficulty working with the screen. We found that bifocals are not suitable for
the operation of a word processor screen, since they tend to make the operator
tilt his or her head backwards, incurring postural strain. The focal length of
the reading segment of eyeglasses is also not generally satisfactory for
working at a VDT.
In the initial stage of our move to word
processing, the editors continued to edit on paper (or 'hard copy' as it is
called); but it was suggested by one editorial supervisor that we should at
least experiment with editors working at the screens (as they do at many
newspapers and magazines). Having a limited number of terminals at that time,
we staggered shifts so that the editors could work after the transcribers had
completed their task. The reception was mixed. Some editors enjoyed the
challenge of manipulating material on the screen. Others showed less aptitude
and were less happy.
There is no doubt that the use of screens
slowed the editing process substantially more than it had initially slowed the
It was natural that the editors, who did not
normally work at keyboards, should take longer to become proficient in the new
art than their transcribing colleagues. Had the effect been permanent there was
the prospect that any financial advantage envisaged by the introduction of word
processing might be wiped out by having to increase the more costly editing
labour pool. With experience, however, most of the editors have recovered their
former editing speed (and some may have increased it).
The question of saving printing costs is
also complex. The introduction of word processing has eliminated the manual
typesetting phase a formerly costly part of the printing operation and the task
of proof-reading has effectively been transferred to members of the Hansard
On the face of it, this should have
immediately and greatly reduced printing costs, but in practice the process has
been more gradual. The factors were these: first, we were under contract to our
printer at a fixed cost per page; and in order to co-operate with us and to
accommodate our changing technology, the printer had to acquire new equipment
and skills. Furthermore, we did not want the printer to totally relinquish his
proof-reading role. We felt that initially we needed that extra safeguard
(since an experienced editor is not necessarily a competent proof-reader) to
ensure the minimum number of errors during the transition period.
In consideration of these factors, the
printer agreed to give us a substantially reduced cost-per-page in exchange for
an extension of the current contract to help him absorb the additional costs
involved in going from hot metal to coldtype reproduction. This new contract is
due to expire in December, 1983.
The resulting breathing space has been
invaluable, and has given us the flexibility to dispatch copy by the new
datalink route or, if there were any kind of breakdown, by the former hard
copy, manuscript method.
Through feedback from the printer's reading
staff, we have also been able to determine that our proof-reading phase is
working satisfactorily. This has given us the confidence to face future
tendering of the printing contract without fear of any serious problem on our
part. The flexibility of the system and the universality of the datalink
transmission, should also make it possible for a greater number of commercial
printers to bid on the Hansard contract. (in the past, there has been a
noticeable disinclination for firms to become involved in the printing of
It is too early to conclude whether we are
saving a great deal of money by pursuing the word processing/coldtype route in
Hansard production. We did have a real reduction of about $98,000 in our
printing costs for the first full year of operation (1981). Against this we had
to set our Wang lease purchase costs of about $75,000 per annum, plus
incidental material costs and some additional editing/proof reading costs. The
leasing fees are scheduled to terminate at the end of five years from the
initial contract in 1979; and if we continue using the system thereafter, we
will be faced with maintenance charges only, of approximately $25,000 a year.
Additional savings may be realized when the
printing contract is tendered at the end of 1983. At that time we will be able
to gauge more accurately, due to the competitive pressure of the market, just
how much we can save on printing costs in the future. By then we will have
eliminated the costly proof-reading requirement from the terms of the contract,
in addition to being able to reap the full benefit from the elimination of the
costly and time consuming business of keyboarding the Hansard copy.
Apart from cost, one major advantage from
the printing aspect has been the transmission of copy over the datalink. We
still have a messenger service, provided by the printer, for the pickup of the
hard copy manuscript as a backup to the transmission, but the former urgency
and inconvenience of this step has been eliminated.
Other benefits may accrue down the road from
the use of word processing. Having the report of debates in machine-readable
form means that it can be placed in a data bank for retrieval by libraries or
research services. Unlike some other computer users who are constantly striving
for further advances in technology, we are well served and satisfied with the
current state of the art. In fact we are by no means using all of the current
capabilities of the Wang system.
This leads us to believe that, subject to
the serviceability and durability of the equipment, we will be able to continue
to use our present system for several years after the lease purchase payments
cease. The only impediment currently foreseen is that we may be called upon to
upgrade our terminals to comply with any ergonomic regulations. In the meantime
we are doing everything we can to make the working environment as comfortable
and healthy as possible and will not hesitate to implement any reasonable
improvements or safeguards that become available.