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The Government Domain: Bloggin' USA

By Peggy Garvin, Published on July 15, 2005

Peggy Garvin of Garvin Information Consulting is author of The United States Government Internet Manual (Bernan Press) and contributing author for The Congressional Deskbook (TheCapitol.Net).



Political blogs and political bloggers became a favorite media topic during the 2004 U.S. presidential elections. The bloggers are still at it, but what’s new in 2005 is that web developers are coming up with ways to surf the poli-blogs and catch a ride on open-access government information, too.

This column looks at three free web services that leverage blogs and blogging software to deliver information on federal government issues: PubSub Government, Plogress.com, and GovTrack.

PubSub and PubSub Government

PubSub Government is part of PubSub proper, which calls itself a “matching service” - essentially, what used to be called a selective dissemination of information (SDI) service. Create and save a keyword search, and PubSub will continually run it against new blog entries, newsfeed items, and other structured streams of information as they are published online. Special searches can be set up to monitor some popular government information streams, such as corporate filings from the Securities and Exchange Commission and earthquake alerts from the U.S. Geological Survey. PubSub delivers new matches to your monitored topics via your RSS aggregator, a bookmarked web page, or the downloadable PubSub Sidebar tool that displays “real-time” alerts for new matches.

 

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PubSub Government, launched in June, takes the PubSub model one step further by offering ready-made keyword searches for finding news and bloggings about the federal government. These canned searches are grouped into six categories:

  • State Elected Officials
  • Congressional Committees
  • Supreme Court Judges
  • Cabinet Members
  • George W. Bush
  • Richard B. Cheney
  • All searches deal with the federal level of U.S. government, although the State Elected Officials category includes state governors along with members of the U.S. House and Senate. The Cabinet Members category includes ready-made searches for Cabinet-level departments and offices, along with searches on each Cabinet member’s name.

    The screenshot below shows a sampling of results delivered for a search subscription on Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

     

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    Similar searching could be done with less customized tools, but PubSub Government makes it easier and faster for searchers to keep on top of what political bloggers are writing. And who wants to know what these bloggers are writing? In its press release, PubSub says its Government service will help as a resource “for journalists to pick up story leads and for campaign staff to keep up with the latest buzz on their candidate.” A report by the Pew Internet and American Life Project and BuzzMetrics released in May confirms that bloggers are buzzmakers; see Buzz, Blogs, and Beyond: The Internet and the National Discourse in the Fall of 2004. All the same, I have to say that it can be rough surfing out there. Some of the blog entries my searches found were full of the factual errors, unfiltered language, and content-free expression that float around on the big blogging ocean.

    I can see that PubSub Government will help those with an extreme need to know everything that is being said about a candidate or topic. Stepping back for a wider view, I can see that PubSub Government is a nice way to demonstrate PubSub’s approach to current awareness technology. John Battelle took an even wider view in his June 2, 2005 review of PubSub Government, observing that projects like PubSub “let the individual publishers build data structures which, in aggregate, create a fuzzy kind of value that developers can tap into. Were enough of these kind of structured and tagged data sets [such as blogs] to become available … we might well see services evolve which are built on the premise of freely available data - in other words, a new kind of publishing model, one where value comes from what you do with the data, as opposed to who owns access to the data.”

    Which leads me to Plogress.com and GovTrack.

    Plogress.com

    Plogress.com is the effort of a single individual who is taking advantage of the structured data from THOMAS, the government’s legislative information service, to create his own information service.

    It was launched in May and is still very much under development. Plogress uses WordPress blogging software, so the home page looks much like many blogs do.

    Plogress provides notices culled from THOMAS data on the roll call votes cast and legislation sponsored by each member of Congress.

    To get to these “Plogress Reports,” use the left sidebar to choose a state. View the list of Senators and Representatives from that state and select one.

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    The screenshot below shows a report for Senator Joseph Biden (D-DE). In the left sidebar of this page, you can choose to subscribe to a current awareness feed of reports on Biden’s votes or on legislation he has sponsored or cosponsored. The linked bill numbers on this page go to the text of the bill or amendment as available (or not) in the THOMAS Full Text of Bills and Resolutions file. (A link to the THOMAS Bill Summary & Status file would be much more helpful, particularly for amendments, and perhaps Plogress will make such a change by the time this review appears.)

    Plogress is a bit duplicative of work already done by GovTrack, and it is still a work in progress, but it demonstrates what can be done when blogging technology intersects with open government information

     

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    GovTrack

    GovTrack, reviewed in this column in March, is a perfect example of a service built on freely available data as described by John Battelle. At the tender age of ten months, GovTrack is already a veteran of the scene.

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    GovTrack has a new feature in the lower right corner of the home page: “Hot Legislation in the Blogosphere.” To compile this short list, GovTrack developer Joshua Tauberer finds the newest blog entries that link to a bill on THOMAS or GovTrack and sorts those by their popularity, as measured by the number of other blogs linking to them. It is an interesting idea, but one that Tauberer says is hampered by the fact that few bloggers bother to add links to the bills they mention.

    PubSub Government gives us a look at blog popularity, too. Each page listing a state’s elected officials has a tally for the politician mentioned most often in all feeds for the previous day. No big surprises here - yes, Senator Clinton is the most blogged-about member of Congress from New York - but it does provide some summer fun.