Electronic Toolbox for Congress

(Cross-posted from DanielSchuman.com)

Here is a rundown of free digital tools any self-respecting congressional staffer, Member of Congress, journalist, or public advocate should consider using. All are free, run on information published by Congress or cobbled together from official sources, and most are built on open source code. (Many of the developers are members of the Congressional Data Coalition.)

Committee Meeting Calendar

While you could pay $1000 annually to subscribe to a daily calendar of committee hearings, GovTrack publishes an automatically-updated calendar that lists all hearings and meetings in the House in Senate at no cost to you. Alternatively, subscribe to GovTrack’s alerts, which tracks particular committees and bills.

Follow House Floor Action

The app Capitol Bells tells you whenever there is a House floor vote and provides essential context (such as what the vote is on). Used by more than half the Members of the House, it’s an essential tool to keep an eye on the floor.

Google Alerts for Government (but not Google)

The Sunlight Foundation’s alert tool Scout is the most powerful way to be alerted to government actions. It sends email alerts based on your keywords for federal and state legislation, federal regulations, floor speeches, GAO Reports, IG reports, and some federal court opinions. It’s like having a staff of well-payed research assistants constantly hitting refresh on dozens of congressional websites.

Collaboratively Write the Bill

Public input on legislation is often useful but only with the recent launch of Madison is there a free tool that allows broad public engagement while retaining control of the document. Built by the OpenGov Foundation, it is open source and used by Congress and the White House.

Read the Bill

While Congress’ redesign of its legislative information system has brought many needed improvements, it still lacks a lot of important contextual information. GovTrack has provided legislative information for a decade and should be your first stop. If you’re interested in the cost of legislation, Jim Harper’s WashingtonWatch is the place to go.

Read the Law

Until this past year, there was no single free online source for all bills signed into law. But now you can look up and read public laws to your heart’s content by going to Legislink. Of course, if you want to read the US Code, there’s the Office of Law Revision Counsel’s official website as well as the longstanding champion of public access to legal information, Cornell’s LII. (Cornell has a ton of other stuff, having been in the business of free online access to law since the early 90s, before everyone else).

Congressional Staff Directory

You might guess Congress publishes a staff directory with the names of staffers and their areas of responsibility, but only private sector sources are available. Fortunately, thanks to the hard work of the Sunlight Foundation, the website FindTheBest has a searchable directory of House and Senate staffers. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty good (especially since it’s free). Sunlight has a downloadable version of the House information, too.

Inspector General Reports

Until very recently, it was impossible to find all the publicly available IG reports in one place. Thanks to the hard work of many volunteers, you can search IG reports from 65 offices at oversight.io.

Searchable Press Releases

Still a work in progress, Statementer pulls many congressional press releases into a central website searchable by the title of the release.

House Activities

While not third party apps, two congressional websites are worth their weight in gold. First, docs.house.gov the website docs.house.gov is a powerful source of information about House floor and committee activities. Second, the rules committee website in invaluable to see when a bill is ready to go to the floor (3 legislative days in advance), including any amendments that are offered.

A Few More Tricks

While these technically are not legislative-focused websites, they can be useful in monitoring/accessing information that is not user friendly.

    • ChangeDetection will send you an alert for whenever a webpage has changed. Certain committees have such awful websites that the only way to know what’s new is to get an alert when the page itself changes.
    • The Wayback Machine may be named after a cartoon time machine, but it allows you to see how websites appeared in the past. This is particularly helpful if a site has gone down or its content has changed.
    • Congress has a bad habit of purging congressional websites. But the web harvest, hosted by the Center for Legislative Archives, allows you to see congressional websites going back to 2006.

 

Final Thoughts

These websites are pretty cool, but there should be more of them. Even with recent progress, Congress and its legislative support agencies need to publish more information and do so in more useful formats. Congress also should enact legislation like the Access to Congressionally Mandated Reports Act, which will make additional troves of information publicly available. There also has to be further developments in how Congress collaborates with the public, whether through hackathons or the use of open source technology, but that is a discussion for another time.

Save the Date: 1st of 2 Multidisciplinary Hackathons on U.S. Congressional Data & Processes

Boston Kickoff Weekend Co-Hosted by Harvard University’s Ash Center and The OpenGov Foundation; Finals on Capitol Hill Spring 2015

The weekend of January 30, 2015, The OpenGov Foundation and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government will host a multi-disciplinary hackathon to design what the future of the US Congress should look like.

The event will bring together political scientists, designers, technologists, lawyers, organizational psychologists, and lawmakers to look for multi-layered, thoughtful ways for citizens to get involved in their government, and for elected officials to better communicate with citizens and understand their needs, more efficiently craft legislation, and more effectively address the complex issues of the 21st Century.

Projects presented at the end of the hackathon will be evaluated by a panel of judges. After a second hackathon hosted by The OpenGov Foundation on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. in spring 2015, the winning teams will have an opportunity to present their projects to lawmakers and other high-level officials inside Congress.

The event is co-sponsored by The Sunlight Foundation, Congressional Management Foundation, Microsoft New England, CODE2040, and Generation Citizen.

You can register here.

Schedule:
Friday, January 30, 2015
4:10pm: Introductory Panel followed by happy hour

Saturday, January 31 and Sunday, February 1, 2015
8:30am- 5 p.m.: Hackathon

Location:

Harvard Kennedy School of Government
79 JFK St., Cambridge, MA

View/submit project proposals:
https://hackpad.com/Hack4Congress-kiKLDML5Rr9

Click here for more information.

Opengov groups call on legislatures around the globe to embrace open data

(via Sunlight)

Sunlight is thrilled to mark Global Legislative Openness Week with our global legislative transparency campaign, which culminated earlier this week in a joint letter from the world’s parliamentary monitoring organizations (PMOs) sent to national legislatures across the globe.

The letter calls for increased legislative transparency and parliamentary open data, and affirms the importance of legislative institutions and NGOs as partners in strengthening democracy. It is also an invitation for increased collaboration, offering help to legislatures in embracing new technology.

In the short time since we solicited endorsements, we’ve been nothing short of astounded by the response we’ve gotten from the community of PMOs throughout the world. In part, that’s due to the unique strength of the PMO network we’ve built along with the National Democratic Institute and theLatin American Network for Legislative Transparency; it also demonstrates NGOs’ appetite for both transparency and for coordinated international advocacy.

One hundred nine PMOs from 54 countries have endorsed the letter, along with a variety of other supporting organizations.1 The letter has also been translated into 14 languages, for a total of 20 translations (including regional variations). With groups’ help from around the world, we have submitted the letter to 191 legislative bodies in 130 different countries and the EU.

Many legislatures are demonstrating an eagerness to respond. Our colleagues at Hasadna in Israel have leveraged the campaign to begin conversations with theKnesset about releasing an API for parliamentary data. TheAl Hayat Center in Jordan had a personal appointment with the Speaker of the Jordanian parliament to hand deliver our community’s demands for openness. These early conversations mark a new opportunity for dialogue between PMOs and members of parliaments, and we expect to hear of many more examples in the coming weeks.

In addition to these governmental responses, we’re also seeing a big response from our broader PMO community. National level actors are customizing the campaign to leverage it in their own context, through activities including organizing a coalition of civil society organizations (CSOs) for a strong coordinated promotional push (Spain, Burkina Faso, Croatia), crowdsourcing unique translations based on the national parliamentary situations or cultural nuances (Latin America, Netherlands, Chile) and even hand delivering letters to parliaments when contact information is difficult to find (Kenya).

One development we’re particularly excited about is that our approach to legislative reform at scale internationally is also being translated to the subnational level. Sunlight is leading (and will soon be sending) a similar letter to every U.S. state legislature, and PATTIRO — an NGO based in Indonesia — has disseminated the letter nationwide, reaching out to the country’s 34 regional legislatures.OpenNorth, a PMO in Canada, and Public Policies Lab from Argentina have also sent the letter to local legislatures.

We expect that these stories of direct legislature impact and national CSO activity are just a few of the many to come. To track these initiatives, we’ve put together a public document to help build a repository of success stories for the global legislative transparency community. However, to create a complete and inclusive repository, we need your help. If you know of any updates or activities that have resulted from this campaign on the national level, please add it to our spreadsheet.

Publish the Constitution Annotated as Data

Dear Library of Congress and Government Printing Office,

For decades, you have jointly published a handy compendium that explains the U.S. Constitution as it has been interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court. It took a couple of letters from the Senate (and repeated nudging from the public interest community—20092010,201120122013) to move you to publish the Constitution Annotatedonline more than once a decade, but you still do not regularly publish it online in a structured-data format. Instead, the Constitution Annotated is published as a PDF, which has not been updated in 15 months.

The entire point of the document is to educate the public and Congress about the Constitution. As a technical matter, the Constitution Annotated is prepared as an XML file, published internally to congressional staff as a series of web pages, and updated regularly. You could simply make those pages available to the public and we would all be happy. Instead, the public interest community must keep pestering you, year after year.

Why do we care? Publishing the Constitution Annotated in a structured-data format means that the public can easily reuse the information so that more people can benefit from the knowledge it contains. Structured data makes it easier to embed the information in Wikipedia, or create betterwebsites on the Constitution, and so on. It also means we can do neat things with the contents, such as automatically classifying Supreme Court cases by topic simply by drawing upon the document’s structure.

Publishing the Constitution Annotated in structured-data format is also within your mission. As the respective repository and publisher of government-generated information, providing public access to an authoritative explanation of our nation’s founding document, as interpreted over the years, is the kind of thing you do.

So I ask you, on Constitution Day 2014, let’s get this fixed before next year. We’re happy to help.

House Concludes Third Annual Legislative Data and Transparency Conference

(Cross-posted from CREW)

Last week, the House of Representatives held its third annual Legislative Data and Transparency Conference. The full-day symposium, which took place in the U.S. Capitol, featured speakers from inside and outside government who discussed efforts to make more legislative information available to the public, particularly in machine-readable formats.

The event was sponsored by the Committee on House Administration and included staff from House leadership offices (of both parties), the Clerk’s office, the Government Printing Office, the Library of Congress, the Office of Law Revision Counsel, the Office of Legislative Counsel, and other personal and committee offices. In addition, a number of outside groups made presentations, including the Congressional Data Coalition, a consortium of civic organizations, civic hackers, businesses, trade associations, librarians, and others who support better public access to legislative data. The event was live-streamed, and video will be made available on the Committee on House Administration’s website.

While the event was jam-packed with interesting information, three items particularly stood out.

First, the conference itself is the ongoing manifestation of the House of Representatives’ collective efforts to make its activities more open and transparent to the public. For proof, one merely needs to look to the series of annual transparency conferences, the ongoing meetings of the Legislative Bulk Data Task Force, the recent Legislative Branch Appropriations Bill, the creation of docs.house.gov, the ongoing upgrades to rules.house.gov, the updated version of the U.S. code, and so on.

Second, real progress is being made on one of the thorniest but singularly important issues: Is it possible to show, in real-time, how an amendment would change a bill and how draft legislation would change the law? For a number of technical reasons, building a solution to these questions is particularly difficult in the U.S. Congress. However, the House has made real progress in doing just that. For the details, watch the HOLC/OLRC Modernization and Next Steps presentation given by Ralph Seep, Sandra Strokoff, and Harlan Yu.

Finally, there is a growing sense of partnership and camaraderie among people who are working to make legislative information more widely available regardless of whether they are inside or outside government. Sometimes the work of people outside government is paving the way for innovations inside government. Other times, efforts by those inside government allow those of us on the outside to build clever new services and tools. In many respects, there is a real give-and-take. This is what progress looks like.

Transparency and Legislative Data Happy Hour

On behalf of the Congressional Data Coalition, you are invited to a Transparency and Legislative Data Happy Hour this upcoming Thursday, May 29, from 5ish to 7. We will get started right after the House of Representative’s 2014 Legislative Data and Transparency Conference ends.

Location: Bullfeathers, on Capitol Hill, just south of the Cannon House Office Building, 410 1st Street SE Washington, DC

We will provide (very) light hors d’eouvres and have a spot towards the back of the bar.

Please let us know you’re coming by RSVPing below (or go here).

Congress at a Glance

What is Congress doing this week? The answer to this question—an assortment of hearings and markups in the House and Senate—is surprisingly difficult to find. A few publications sell this information to congressional insiders with money to burn, but only recently has a comprehensive free source of this information become available.

The privately-run congressional website GovTrack just began publishing a committee meetings calendar for all hearings and markups scheduled in the House or Senate, updated daily. This calendar levels the playing field for small non-profits and private citizens otherwise not able to afford comprehensive scheduling information.

Both Senate and House rules require nearly all committees to publish committee scheduling information a week in advance (three days for some House meetings). For a while now, the Senate aggregated the scheduling information in one place both in human-readable and machine-readable formats, but the House buried information on multiple committee webpages, often in PDFs, except for a listing of the upcoming day’s events.

With the House’s launch of its impressive new website, docs.house.gov, users can obtain information about that chamber’s activities as soon as it is scheduled. In fact, docs.house.gov goes further than the Senate website and contains relevant committee documents such as witness testimony and legislation about to be considered on the House floor. The House Rules Committee also has vast amounts of data about amendments offered for consideration on the floor.

All this means that it is now possible to combine House and Senate data to get a fuller picture of what is happening in committees across the legislative branch. (A few entities, such as Senate Appropriators, don’t have to follow these publication rules.) One would expect Congress’ flagship legislative information website, Congress.gov, to combine this information into one helpful, public-facing list, but that is not yet the case.

Traditionally, civic activists have led on congressional technology issues, with their innovations slowly leaking over into official practice. One could imagine a central list of upcoming hearings and markups that contains links to live and archived video, committee documents, witness lists, and other useful information, all in one place.

Until then, GovTrack’s unified list of committee activities has transformed civic data published by Congress into something everyone can use.

Cross-posted from CREW.

Congressional Data Coalition asks Senate to publish legislative info in digital formats

Earlier today, the Congressional Data Coalition submitted testimony to the Senate Appropriations Committee on improving public access to legislative information. The coalition made two requests.

First, we asked the Senate to concur with legislative language passed by the House of Representatives and direct the secretary of the Senate to work to implement bulk access to bill status information. Second, we requested that the Senate authorize the Library of Congress and the Government Printing Office to publish bill summary information in bulk in the same fashion as does the House of Representatives.

The Congressional Data Coalition previously had submitted testimony to House appropriators requesting bulk access to bill status information. While this recommendation was not adopted in subcommittee, an amendment to this effect offered by Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., was adopted by the full committee in early April and passed by the House of Representatives yesterday.

The House of Representatives has led in making legislative information available to the public in digital formats. We hope the Senate will engage in efforts to ensure the public has access to congressional activities in a manner befitting our modern technological age.

The letter was jointly co-authored by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) and Civic Impulse, LLC, on behalf of the Congressional Data Coalition. It was signed by the Data Transparency Coalition, Legisworks.org, the National Priorities Project, the OpenGov Foundation, OpenTheGovernment.org, the R Street Institute, the Sunlight Foundation, WashingtonWatch.com, Jerry Hall of eCitizens.org and GovAlert.me, Molly Schwartz of the R Street Institute and Gregory Slater.

Federal News Radio interview on the Congressional Data Coalition

Earlier today, Emily Kopp of Federal News Radio interviewed Congressional Data Coalition chairman Daniel Schuman about the launch of the coalition and a recent victory in the House of Representatives. Listen here.

Big step for public access to legislation

Earlier today, the House of Representatives’ Appropriations Committee made a major move towards improving public access to legislative information. In layman’s terms, the committee said that by the beginning of the next Congress information about the disposition of bills—where they are in the legislative process and who authored or co-sponsored the legislation—will be published in a way that computers can easily process, and thus can be easily reused by apps and websites.

Americans access legislative information through third-party sites. This change in publication policy will help guarantee that accurate, timely, and complete legislative information is directly available from the official source. Congress already publishes the text of legislation in a structured format that is downloadable in bulk.

The committee specifically directed the Clerk of the House to work with the Librarian of Congress and the Public Printer to publish bill status information for bulk data downloads by the beginning of the next congress. This has been a long-standing request of the public interest community and was the subject of a recent letter sent by CREW and GovTrack.us on behalf of the newly formed Congressional Data Coalition.

The report language came at the behest of Rep. Mike Quigley (D-IL), who recommended the committee adopt this language in its report. His recommendation was the culmination of many years of hard work by legislative transparency advocates in both parties, including (but not limited to) Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), Minority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD), and Reps. Darrell Issa (R-CA), Mike Quigley (D-IL), Mike Honda (D-CA), and Ander Crenshaw (R-FL).

In June 2012, Speaker Boehner, Majority Leader Cantor, and then-Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Ander Crenshaw issued a letter on the occasion of the establishment of a Legislative Bulk Data Task Force charged with looking into improved public access to legislative information, stating “our goal is to provide bulk access to legislative information the American people without further delay.” Rep. Issa had offered an amendment to put that requirement into law, but withdrew it pending the report of the Task Force. In its December 2013 report, the Task Force recommended “that it be a priority for Legislative Branch agencies to publish legislative information in XML and provide bulk access to that data.” While the issue was not raised during the recent Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee hearings, Ranking Member Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-FL) singled out Rep. Quigley at the full committee hearing for making the recommendation.

With the report language in the final committee report, it is unclear what additional action, if any, is necessary to put it into effect. The House Appropriations Committee has tremendous sway over legislative branch agencies, who may spring to comply even in the absence of floor action in the House. The Senate, in its own committee report, may not address the issue (thus perhaps giving tacit approval) or may expressly agree or disagree to bulk publication of bill status information. Indeed, the Senate’s Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee is still reviewing its appropriation bill, having met just yesterday.

Regardless, today’s action in the House is a significant win for transparency. Public interest advocates have been fighting for bulk access to legislative information at least since May 2007, and the House has now put its full weight on the side of legislative transparency.

Here is the report language:

The Committee request that the Clerk of the House, the Librarian of Congress and the Public Printer work together to make available to the public through Congress.gov or FDsys bulk data downloads of bill status by the beginning of the next Congress.