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The Government Domain: 'Insanely Useful' Legislative Sites

By Peggy Garvin, Published on July 27, 2007

This is not your grandfather's online legislative research environment. It is not even your older sibling's legislative research environment. Let's skip over the history of dial-up mainframe databases, gophers, the Web, and the launch of GPO Access and THOMAS. Fast-forward to the September 2004 launch of GovTrack.us. For the first time, the open source, mashed up, Web 2.0 approach was applied to bring us a different view of the venerable Bill Summary & Status database, the core of THOMAS. Joshua Tauberer, a private citizen with plenty else to do and no legislative agenda of his own, developed a free, alternative version of THOMAS and added functionality like bill and member monitoring and a browser search widget. He also made his source files available to all for free. GovTrack's data repository has, in turn, enabled the creation of other open and Web 2.0-ish legislative resources such as OpenCongress, MAPLight, and Where a Bill Becomes a Law. (For more technical information on GovTrack, see Tauberer's September 2006 article GovTrack.us, Public Data, and the Semantic Web published on the O'Reilly XML.com site.)

I have written about GovTrack and OpenCongress before (see, GovTrack and OpenCongress Go Beyond THOMAS). What inspires this article is a web resource recently posted by the Sunlight Foundation entitled Insanely Useful Sites. The Sunlight Foundation is a private, nonprofit, DC-based organization founded just last year. Their stated goal is "using the revolutionary power of the Internet and new information technology to enable citizens to learn more about what Congress and their elected representatives are doing, and thus help reduce corruption, ensure greater transparency and accountability by government, and foster public trust in the vital institutions of democracy." The chairman and provider of a substantial donation is Michael R. Klein, a former securities lawyer. The Sunlight board of directors and advisory board feature such famous tech names as Esther Dyson, Craig Newmark, and Jimmy Wales.

Sunlight has developed applications like OpenCongress on its own, but they have also encouraged the development of many other resources with, as they put it, " 'transparency grants' for organizations that are using new 'Web 2.0' technology to further the organization's mission of putting information into citizens' hands to increase transparency in Congress." The source files provided by GovTrack and the money and attention provided by Sunlight have brought a new level of energy and experimentation to the world of online legislative information.

Insanely Useful?

Sunlight's Insanely Useful Sites list (no doubt inspired by Steve Jobs' "insanely great" motto) includes but is not limited to the websites of the Foundation's grantees. See Sunlight's page for the full list.

Because of the "transparency" goal, Sunlight's list includes applications that deal with political fundraising and political commentary. Several of the resources are described below, and all trend more to the pure legislative data end of the range. But, since user involvement is a Web 2.0 characteristic, they almost all go beyond just serving up official data. These sites are all relatively new, and still evolving.

Congresspedia

Congresspedia is a joint project of the Sunlight Foundation and the Center for Media and Democracy's SourceWatch. It is a wiki, meaning any registered user can contribute content, but it is "overseen by an editor to help ensure fairness and accuracy." Congresspedia includes an entry for each member of Congress. Member entries provide basic background information, cover transparency issues (such as campaign contributions and privately funded travel), highlight any controversies, and link to related news articles on the web. The member articles are a bit uneven. For example, some member entries highlight the member's position on gun control while others do not. A standard link to voting record in the member entries leads to the general Congresspedia article index, while links to actual voting records (from Project Vote Smart and others) are provided further down in the entries under "More Background Data."

This month, Congresspedia launched a new Legislation and Issue Portal, with 14 subsections covering broad topical areas such as Economic Policy and Health Policy. Each subsection highlights current legislative developments. For now, Congresspedia can be a helpful way to find a bill number, begin issue research, or research your elected representatives. If Congresspedia recruits enough (how many is enough?) volunteer contributors, we should see more entries, more content in each entry, and perhaps more consistency across like entries. Congresspedia was reviewed in the July 2007 issue of the Cornell Law Library INSITE newsletter.

GovTrack

GovTrack is neither a Sunlight creation nor a grantee. GovTrack started out as another way of looking at the THOMAS data and added a killer app, automatic monitoring of bills and members for free. GovTrack is now brimming with supplemental information and features, such as:

Because GovTrack must check the official sources for updates, the official sources (such as GPO Access and THOMAS) will often have data before GovTrack has it. As stated on each GovTrack bill display, "Because the government takes a day or two to post legislative information online, GovTrack is usually current as of the start of the previous day." As a test, I checked the status of a bill that had been voted on one Monday night, and GovTrack's bill status information reflected the change the next morning, as did THOMAS.

LOUIS

LOUIS is another beta release from the Sunlight Foundation. LOUIS stands for "Library of Unified Information Sources." It enables a unified search of the ASCII text versions of these GPO Access files: Congressional Reports, Congressional Record, Congressional Hearings, Federal Register, Presidential Documents, Federal Register, GAO Reports, and Congressional Bills & Resolutions. Individually, each file is available as an RSS feed. As stated on the website: "Our ultimate goal is to create a comprehensive, completely indexed and cross-referenced depository of federal documents from the executive and legislative branches of government. We are not there yet, but we can now offer these documents organized in a user-friendly interface, with a powerful search engine." If you are going to use LOUIS as single mass of searchable text, you should understand the coverage of each database first. The helpful explanations available on GPO Access (such as, "most Congressional hearings are published two months to two years after they are held") are missing from LOUIS. Familiarity with the GPO source files also helps. For example, it is good to know that the hearings database is a database of printed hearings. In addition, remember that LOUIS is searching and displaying the ASCII text of documents, which often do not have the full contents of the printed documents. In the case of congressional hearings, this can include numerous documents submitted for the record, such as letters and GAO reports. This content is not searchable, but it can be displayed in the PDF version at GPO Access. (Thanks to a Savvy Senate Librarian for this reminder.) What makes LOUIS "Web 2.0" is the availability of the RSS feeds and a LOUIS API open to all developers. LOUIS recently received coverage from InfoToday's NewsBreak.

OpenCongress

OpenCongress is labeled 'beta'. The application is already fairly well developed, but it can also serve as a site for further experimentation. OpenCongress borrows heavily from GovTrack and, like GovTrack, is an alternate approach to viewing THOMAS data. OpenCongress features lists of the bills most viewed on the site, most covered in blogs, and most cited in the news. These popularity-based rankings are a great way to quickly pinpoint the bill number for active or controversial legislation. OpenCongress also lists the most recent votes, most viewed Senators (David Vitter knocked champion Hillary Clinton off the page the week of July 9) and Representatives, most viewed committees, and most viewed issues (as indexed by Congressional Research Service (CRS) using their Legislative Indexing Vocabulary). Like GovTrack, OpenCongress may lag behind GPO Access and THOMAS in posting updates that come from the official sources. For the same sample bill voted on one Monday night (see GovTrack entry above), OpenCongress was not as timely in updating the bill status record as THOMAS and GovTrack were. My approach with both GovTrack and OpenCongress is to use them as finding tools and to verify the bill status on official legislative sites.

WashingtonWatch

WashingtonWatch is the recipient of a Sunlight Foundation grant. As stated on the website, "WashingtonWatch.com is maintained by Jim Harper, Director of Information Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, in his spare time, as a public service." WashingtonWatch is all about legislation currently in Congress. The site provides some information on each bill, with opportunities for user-generated content. The site itself does not provide much documentation on the data it uses, but it looks as if each bill record includes these elements:

In general, WashingtonWatch does not add unique content or features that would be relevant to my own legislative research, but it certainly is intriguing. Reading through the visitor comments is like listening in on 100 different radio call-in shows at the same time. And looking at the number of people who comment on a bill can certainly broaden one's horizons. Sure, you'd expect that big immigration bill to have a lot of comments, but the Northern Mariana Islands Covenant Implementation Act? I feel just a bit less provincial now that I know about it.

Update: In a July 25, 2007 press release, WashingtonWatch and PR Newswire announced a partnership through which, "WashingtonWatch.com will feature breaking news from PR Newswire on its cutting-edge online legislative wiki, and PR Newswire will distribute advisories of legislative information from WashingtonWatch.com on its world-class news distribution network reaching media and online audiences worldwide."

Where a Bill Becomes a Law

Where a Bill becomes a Law Whereabill, as I call it, is not on the Insanely Great list, but it certainly takes a creative mash-up approach to legislative data. Whereabill provides this succinct explanation of its contents and value:

Where a Bill becomes a Law, modeled on Google's driving directions, is meant to provide a fun and educational way of seeing the status of U.S. legislation. It aims to make the legislative process, i.e. How a Bill becomes a Law, less abstract… Seeing that legislative decisions are made in real buildings in the real world is another way of reminding us that our government is something concrete, and therefore something upon which we can have an impact.

Go ahead, take S. 214 (110th Congress) for a ride. Click on the blue status number for each step. As the site says, the most obvious use for Whereabill is education. It can be one way to liven up that lecture on how a bill becomes a law.

One Observation

Aside from LOUIS, I was struck by how many of these websites, and others in their class, rely on the value-added data provided by THOMAS-sometimes via GovTrack.

CRS subject-indexing of the bills (based on their Legislative Indexing Vocabulary) is behind the topical lists in GovTrack, OpenCongress, and WashingtonWatch. CRS summaries of bills on THOMAS are used by GovTrack, OpenCongress, WashingtonWatch, and Whereabill. Legislative status steps from the House and Senate via THOMAS are used by GovTrack, OpenCongress, Whereabill, and-in part-WashingtonWatch. This content is not generated by the user and is generated, uniformly, for all bills rather than those most popular at a given time.

Want to see more? Check out the Sunlights Labs.