The Goverment Domain: GovTrack and OpenCongress Go Beyond THOMAS

Peggy Garvin of Garvin Information Consulting is author of The United States Government Internet Manual 2006-2007 (Bernan Press) and Real World Research Skills (TheCapitol.Net).

 

Published March 18, 2007

It is springtime, and a thousand flowers are blooming in the world of open web congressional data. I would like to focus on two projects: GovTrack and OpenCongress. A few additional, related sites that I won’t cover in detail are listed at the end of this column.

GovTrack

GovTrack is not new—it was launched in September 2004—but it is growing. For those who have not yet heard about GovTrack, it is a free, public, independent web service with information on federal legislation, congressional documents, legislators, and votes. GovTrack provides a fresh interface to data that is available from the Library of Congress THOMAS site, the House and Senate websites, and related sources. The feature that gets GovTrack the most attention is the ability to set up monitors, customized email alerts and RSS feeds. Monitors can be set up to track action on specific bills or bills indexed under a specific subject term, actions from a specific committee, or actions by a specific member of Congress. The monitoring or alert option is a feature that THOMAS still lacks, though for-fee commercial databases and Congress’s own version of THOMAS provide it. Beyond these custom monitors, GovTrack has an array of ready-made RSS feeds:

GovTrack features other innovations that you won’t find on THOMAS:
  • Bills most blogged about are highlighted in the left column of the home page.
  • GovTrack’s Congressional Record is illustrated with photos of the members of Congress speaking.
  • A new widget for users of Firefox 2.0 and Internet Explorer 7 adds a GovTrack search box to your browser's toolbar search box. Enter a bill number into the GovTrack browser widget’s search box to get current information on a bill. (Author’s personal note: I like it!) To search for a bill number from a previous congress, enter the bill number with the congress number in this format: H.R. 1285/108 (H.R. 1285 in the 108th Congress).
  • Congressional district maps, which are built on Google maps, are linked to member of Congress representing the district.
  • An experimental feature lets you browse bills introduced in the current session by the U.S. Code section they reference.

Congressional Record with member photos


 

Providing an interface to congressional information has always been just one of the two primary goals of the GovTrack project. While building GovTrack, its creator Josh Tauberer (a Ph.D. student who runs GovTrack as a hobby in his free time), has been working on building a repository of Congress-related data in standardized XML format. Tauberer is an open web believer and encourages re-use of the data. His data contribution, the boom in open web tools, money and encouragement from the Sunlight Foundation, and a netroots interest in transparency in government seem to be the elements that have encouraged a thousand flowers (or projects) to bloom.

OpenCongress

One of the newest projects is OpenCongress. Launched in late February, it is labeled as a beta. OpenCongress is supported by the Sunlight Foundation and the Participatory Politics Foundation, and the site draws heavily on the XML files available through the GovTrack project. OpenCongress has some obvious similarities to GovTrack. Major information categories are Bills, Committees, Senators, and Representatives, and each presents the THOMAS/GovTrack data in a fresh way. OpenCongress also has an Issues section which enables browsing of legislation by topic, using the indexing done by the Congressional Research Service—just as GovTrack does. And, like GovTrack, OpenCongress offers RSS feeds.

In addition to helping citizens navigate legislative information, OpenCongress has a goal of making it “possible for the public to draw connections between lobbying activity, campaign contributions, and the actual substance of bills in Congress” (see: http://www.opencongress.org/industry). The site incorporates campaign finance information from the Center for Responsive Politics and plans to expand in this area. OpenCongress has its own blog called Congress Gossip Blog. The site also integrates other blogs and online news sources. Here is a portion of the information provided on the 110th Congress bill H.R. 720:

H.R. 720 News from OpenCongress.org


 

 

The NPR radio program On the Media recently aired a piece about OpenCongress. Transcripts and audio are available at http://www.onthemedia.org/transcripts/2007/03/09/05.

THOMAS

So, with GovTrack and OpenCongress both in bloom, who needs THOMAS? For starters, both GovTrack and OpenCongress rely on THOMAS data. They both creatively reassemble what already exists because of THOMAS (with essential added-value content provided by CRS), the Government Printing Office, and the clerks of the House and Senate. GovTrack and OpenCongress have relevance because they use authoritative data taken directly from the source. THOMAS is non-partisan, excludes editorial comment, and has clear provenance. Finally, and with all due respect to GovTrack and OpenCongress, their sites and the entities behind them may not last another hundred years, but we hope that our democracy and the record of our history does.

Other Sites of Interest

Congressional Committees Project. A wiki that provided inspiration for the current Open House Project.

Congresspedia. A project of the Sunlight Foundation and the Center for Media and Democracy. A wiki about Congress.

Metavid. Metavid is in the budding stage. To quote from the site, "Metavid is an archive and remediation engine containing public domain legislative proceedings made entirely from free and open source software. To accomplish this goal, we are appropriating C-SPAN's daily coverage of congressional proceedings (which itself an appropriation from State run cameras), archiving, de-encapsulating, indexing and streaming it back to the public" (see: http://metavid.ucsc.edu/wiki/index.php/A_Democratic_Archive_of_Performed_Politics).  For more along these lines, see the adventures of Carl Malamud at http://www.boingboing.net/2007/02/26/ripping_off_the_cong.html.

Author’s note: Laura Gordon-Murnane has written an excellent overview called “Mashups, Blogs, Wikis Go Federal: Creative Uses of Government and Public Data,” for the March 2007 issue of Searcher magazine. The magazine offers a free list of links to sources mentioned in the article. The article itself is not available for free online. You will have to subscribe or check with your library.