Important information about Congress for Internet researchers and bloggers

This is from the Sunlight Foundation, an advocate of government transparency. If you are a blogger that comments on political, historical or public policy issues, you should read.

Library of Congress’s Congress.gov Misses Opportunity for Transparency

Last week, the Library of Congress unveiled the beta version of
Congress.gov, the site that will eventually replace THOMAS.gov as the
federal government’s go-to online resource for tracking legislation and
researching members of Congress. Many have rightfully commended Congress
for directing the Library of Congress to replace an outdated interface
and improving anyone’s ability to track how a bill becomes a law. While
some of that praise is due, especially considering THOMAS was unveiled
in the mid-1990s—before most Americans even went online for political
news—the Library of Congress’s implementation has thwarted the public’s
right to follow the sausage-making of how legislation is debated and
enacted by failing to provide “bulk access” to the underlying data that
powers Congress.gov.

In effect, instead of opening up the data that informs the entire
legislative process, the Library of Congress has created an artificial
and counterproductive reliance on its website. That is no way to inspire
neither entrepreneurial, technological innovations nor government
accountability. In this age of data-powered democracy, it is important
to be able to reuse the official legislative data in interfaces that
empower civic engagement and go beyond what most would expect would be
the Library of Congress’ responsibility or mission.

Ironically, the Library of Congress described in a 2008 memo how easy it
would be to make this data open, and Congress has previously expressed
its support for bulk data, as have many organizations.

Why is this so important? Newsrooms and government transparency websites
can use this data to report accurately the introduction, status,
co-sponsorship and votes on legislation, and that’s just the tip of the
iceberg. The websites of Sunlight coalition partners OpenCongress.org*,
GovTrack.us and WashingtonWatch.com are prime examples of how to make
this data more freely available, as is the information architecture work
by the New York Times.

Advocacy organizations and activists can then use this data to
strengthen their ability to report on Congress and make it easy for
anyone to track legislation in an engaging way and advocate for their
beliefs. For example, Sunlight has created a popular mobile app,
“Congress for Android,” that reuses legislative data to empower
Americans to look up their elected officials and see their latest votes
and sponsored bills, while also allowing them to click to contact their
lawmakers to give feedback on their latest actions. In the 21st century,
this is how citizens expect to be able to petition their government.

Furthermore, during the fight in January over the Stop Online Piracy Act
that sparked a wave of online protest, one developer made a popular
website that was cited extensively showing all the lawmakers who had
taken a position on the bill and how much money they got from the
entertainment sector vs. the tech sector.

But because the Library of Congress has yet to grant public access to
legislative data in bulk, software developers at newsrooms and
nonprofits must perform onerous database “scraping” tasks to access that
data to use it in journalistic ways that enable creative new uses of
that data.

The House leadership has endorsed the idea of bulk access and
established a nascent bulk data task force, but not everyone inside
Congress is fully on board with the effort. Along similar lines, for
several years Sunlight and others have asked the Library of Congress to
form an advisory group on how legislative information is provided to the
public.

Furthermore, the House of Representatives recently released an
innovative legislative information portal, docs.house.gov, which
provides bulk access to House data in a way that is more timely than
what the Library of Congress provides on its THOMAS website, and will
soon provide materials from House committees in addition to documents
concerning floor proceedings. The House also held three conferences on
legislative transparency and created the bulk data task force. In
addition, more than 85 organizations from 60 countries released a
declaration on parliamentary openness at the World e-Parliament
Conference that endorses providing information in open and structured
formats.

To be sure, the new Congress.gov site is sleeker, more intuitive and
user-friendly than THOMAS. It is an upgrade in design and functionality,
but not in transparency because it does not provide bulk access to its
underlying data. Providing bulk access is not only standard practice for
web developers, but would also ease the development of new tools and
technologies by publishing Congress.gov data files online, promoting
accurate and timely information dissemination.

Bulk access to legislative information is already common practice inside
and outside the government. The White House and federal agencies already
publish bulk data online at Data.gov, which allows citizens, journalists
and even the government itself to create clever new apps and websites
using this information. Our nation’s legislature should do the same.

*Disclosure: the Sunlight Foundation has funded OpenCongress.org,
Washington Watch and GovTrack.us.

 

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