At the time this article was
written Ron Tremaine was project manger (CAT) in the Senate Debates Branch.
Lord Balfour once said: "The only
form of history which is really immortal is the contemporary record from which
future historians draw their materials. Every generation will insist on
rewriting the history of the past in its own fashion. But the original sources
remain. They only remain; they only are perpetual."
Implicit in his remarks is the
recognition that the historical record must be captured accurately and
honestly. In the Senate, that has always been, and still is, the function and
raison d'etre of Hansard.
Towards the end of 1989 the Debates
Branch of the Senate began a review of its infrastructure and technology.
Breaking the branch out of its ancient mould and ushering it into the 1990s had
become an imperative. Space was at a premium and printing costs were constantly
rising. The cost of running the branch seemed unfettered.
How could we solve these many and
diverse problems? The answer, when we found it, was simple—its implementation
Up until 1990 all proceedings of
the Senate, whether in the chamber or in committees, were produced by teams of
parliamentary reporters and transcribers (formerly called amanuenses) working
in conjunction with editors and text coordinators. The verbatim record taken in
shorthand by the reporters was dictated to and typed by the transcribers. Of
course, over the years manual typewriters had given way to electric typewriters
and word processors, and then, latterly, to personal computers, but the system
had remained the same. Copies of the unrevised transcript were sent to the senators
(as "blues"), to the translators, to the editor and to the Press
Gallery. The basic process had remained unchanged since Hansard had
become an integral part of the service of the Senate in 1916.
The reformation and modernization
of the Debates of the Senate began with the introduction of computer-aided
transcription (CAT) in 1990. Recommendations by staff and management were made
to the Standing Senate Committee on Internal Economy, Budgets and
Administration, or one of its subcommittees, with respect to the
re-organization of the branch. We had three options that perhaps can best be
described as something old, something borrowed and something new.
"Something old" was the status quo; "something borrowed"
was the system currently in use in most parliamentary jurisdictions, i.e.
producing transcript from tape recordings; and "something new" was
Using computers in conjunction with
electronically-wired shorthand machines, the reporters would produce the
verbatim record on disk, which would then be instantly "translated"
from machine shorthand into English or French by a computer software program.
Welcome to the age of miracles!
When it had become evident that the
traditional method was too costly because of the redundancies built into it—the
duplication of effort at two levels with the consequent wage expenditures—the
decision for change was inevitable. It was a tough decision, since it meant, at
the very least, redeployment, retraining or severance for more than fifty per
cent of our staff, not to mention the breakup of closely knit teams of
reporters and transcribers who, incidentally, had just proven their mettle once
again during the Senate filibuster on Bill C-62, the GST. Aside from the
obvious economic and space-saving benefits, we could, by going with CAT, ensure
that a high quality transcript was maintained while, in this age of computers,
keeping other doors open for us in the future.
A brief description of
computer-aided transcription may be appropriate here. Using CAT, the reporters
record proceedings with a shorthand machine designed on the basis of a phonetic
language. The machine contains a computer which records the reporter's
shorthand on to a floppy disk, which is then transferred to a personal
computer, where the stored information is translated into either English or
French by means of a computer dictionary. That dictionary is comprised of a
matched set of the reporter's phonetic outlines and the corresponding words in
either English or French.
At this point let me divide the
story according to the experience of English CAT and that of French CAT.
While the various options were
being considered by Internal Economy, the management and staff were reviewing
the various CAT software packages that were available. Domus, a local computer
consulting firm already under contract to the Senate to install a new local
area network was brought in to assess the various packages. Eclipse, a program
produced and marketed by Advantage Software of Florida, was considered the best
program for our purposes. Because Advantage Software is a young company (owned
and operated by a former vice-president of Stenograph, the largest and
predominant firm in the business) certain precautions were taken against the
possibility of the company's going out of business: The rights to the source
codes of the program were negotiated along with the initial purchase of eight
In January 1991 we were down to six
CAT reporters: Three had come to us from the House of Commons, where they had
become redundant because of a change in policy there; two, including myself,
were from our original staff; one was on contract. A court reporter from
Florida, who worked with Advantage and was familiar with the Eclipse software,
was hired to conduct a two-week training session. The various reporters'
dictionaries, which had been compiled on other CAT systems, were sent to
Advantage Software for conversion to Eclipse. New computers (386 pcs with
colour monitors) were set up, the Eclipse software was installed, and we were ready
Training began on February 11. Our
instructor, through a hook-up between his computer and an overhead projector,
began to teach us the intricacies of Eclipse. Software packages such as Eclipse
are developed mainly for the court reporting profession, which usually produces
strictly verbatim transcripts. It soon became evident that certain features
were inadequate to accommodate the editorial style of parliamentary reporting.
For example, the movement of text—often referred to as "cutting and pasting"—a
function rarely used in the production of verbatim records, had to be
streamlined to meet our needs. Advantage Software was most accommodating in
such matters. At the end of the training period I sent them a "wish
list" of the features we would like to see in the software, and their
programmer incorporated the changes.
After our two-week session with
Eclipse, we trained on WordPerfect, which is the medium we use to prepare
transcript for printing at the Queen's Printer.
By the end of February we were
ready to begin reporting both Senate and committee proceedings with CAT. The
reporters, of course, were at varying degrees of development. To accommodate
the transition the transcribers remained on standby in case the load became too
heavy using the new procedure. By mid-June all of our English reporters had
become fully integrated on the new system. CAT is no longer a dream of the
future; it is alive and well in English Debates.
Despite the fact that the reporters
of French Debates faced a somewhat different and more daunting task in
implementing CAT, the prognosis is excellent. The French CAT software,
IBM-TASF, is made in France and is compatible with the Grandjean machine method
of shorthand. Two of the reporters were penwriters and, consequently, had to
make a complete transition —somewhat akin to asking a violinist to learn to
play the piano: no easy task! The third reporter already used the Grandjean
machine, but her system was not computer compatible. The penwriters began their
training on the Grandjean in September 1990 and expect to complete it by the
end of 1991. Each weekend they journey to Montreal for instruction and speed
building. They are, at the time of this writing, more than two thirds of the
way through their development, a remarkable feat given that both of them are in
The third reporter, meanwhile,
began the process of becoming computer compatible, which involves purging
conflicts that arise when a phonetic outline is used for more than one word.
For example, "faire" and "vers" once had the same outline.
One has been changed in order that both words may be recognized in the
computer. TASF poses a further problem in that the reporter has to conform his
or her writing style to the program's dictionary. Eclipse, on the other hand,
is "user friendly" because it accommodates the reporter's
idiosyncrasies in compiling the dictionary. The two reporters converting to
Grandjean are, of course, learning a computer compatible style.
The future looks bright and exciting.
The next step is something referred to in the industry as "real
time". Instead of carrying the shorthand machine back and forth, the
reporter connects it directly to a hook-up on the computer; and as the reporter
writes the words appear on the screen. The advantage of "real time"
is that by dividing reporters into teams of two, with one reporter writing
while the other is "scoping" on the computer, we can decrease
Another bright spot for the future
is using "real time" reporting to produce "closed
captioning" on television. This is a matter of televising by means of a
modem what is being said and it is of particular use to the hearing impaired. I
learned this past summer that the United States Senate, as a result of legislation
passed to provide closed captioning to the hearing impaired, has just added six
CAT reporters to their staff. As our population ages the demand for this
service will probably increase.
CAT is being used in other
legislatures around the world. In the U.S. Congress, it is the sole medium for
reporting proceedings. Britain and Australia are at various stages in the
Interested legislators and staff
are invited to visit the Debates Branch (or the "CAT house" as we
fondly refer to it) and see our operation.