The Constitution (Annotated) In Your Pocket

After a powerful speech by Khizr Khan at the Democratic National Convention, sales of pocket U.S. Constitutions have skyrocketed, becoming the second best selling book on Amazon. This is great! But the words of the Constitution are unsufficient to provide an understanding into how it has been applied by the courts over the last two centuries. That’s where the Constitution Annotated comes it.

The Constitution Annotated (aka CONAN) is a plain language explanation of the U.S. Constitution as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court. Published by the non-partisan Congressional Research Service at the direction of Congress, CONAN provides insight into the meaning of our founding document. It also is available online as of 2013 and can downloaded as an app for your phone (iPhone) (Android is under development).

Unfortunately, there are flaws with CONAN — not the content, but how it’s made available to you. First, CONAN is published as PDF files, which makes it all but unreadable on your phone. The app is virtually worthless. Blast. Second, while CONAN is continuously updated by the folks at CRS, what’s available on the website and the app is not. Information can be a year or more behind recent court opinions. This is a travesty, especially when the information is readily available on the congressional intranet and the document is prepared in a format that allows for immediate updates.

We’ve been trying to fix this problem. Believe me. I’ve written about this at least once a year for eight years (2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014), usually on my birthday, Constitution Day. And I’ve lobbied on it. We did finally get CONAN published online, after an enormous effort which resulted in this letter from the Senate Rules Committee to the Government Publishing Office. But CONAN still is not being published online as it is updated, and it’s still not published in a format that would support an app or sophisticated website.

As a result, people are reading highly-biased interpretations of the Constitution instead of the legal treatise that by law must be evenhanded and impartial, and is paid for by your tax dollars.

Maybe the Senate Rules Committee, the Government Publishing Office, and the Library of Congress will move to make the Constitution Annotated available online, in real time, and in a format that human and computers can use. At a moment with so many people are interested in the Constitution, Congress should make sure that everyone has access, electronically and otherwise.

Report from the 2016 Legislative Data & Transparency Conference

Today the House of Representatives’ Committee on House Administration hosted its fifth annual Legislative Data & Transparency Conference in the U.S. Capitol. The Conference brought together staff from House and Senate and legislative support offices, civil society advocates, technologists, overseas legislatures, and featured a speech by House Speaker Paul Ryan. More than 150 people attended, with more participating online.

There’s too much to recap from the conference — my notes, taken in real-time, are online, as is a video of the proceedings — but this blogpost will focus on the highlights. Once again, the most important aspect of the conference was that it brought together all the internal and external stakeholders to work together, announce progress, celebrate advances, and educate one another. It was a tremendous success.

Speaker Ryan: New Digitization Project

Speaker Ryan addressing the conference. Photo credit: Speaker Ryan’s office.

Speaker Paul Ryan announced a new project to publish enrolled legislation as structured data (in United States Legislative Markup Language). The project encompasses all enrolled bills (the final copies of legislation passed identically by both Houses of Congress), public laws, and statutes at large. In its first phase, all enrolled bills from the 113th Congress forward (i.e. January 2013 forward) and all statutes at large from the 108th Congress forward (January 2003 forward) will be published online in the same structured data format in which the U.S. Code is published.

While this sounds technical, what it does it allow the Congress to begin using more sophisticated tools to manage its legislation, including how it is written and updated. It becomes possible to tell better stories around what has happened with bills enacted into law, including formatting the laws so that one can see how they have changed over time.

It is expected that ultimately all legislation enacted by Congress will become available as structured data. Because much of the federal law is non-codified, this will make it easier to show how the law has evolved over time and reflect the current state of the law at any given time.

In addition to the technical details, Speaker Ryan’s announcement underscored the House’s continued dedication to making important information about legislative activities available online and in formats that support analysis and reuse. It is a doubling-down on the commitment made at the beginning of the Congress, in the House Rules package, to ensure that legislative information is available to the public in structured data formats — to support improving congressional processes and public insight into congressional action.

The Congressional Data Coalition had asked for this improvement, and some member offices have been requesting these changes as well.

Steady Improvements and a New Project from the Bulk Data Task Force

The Bulk Data Task Force Presentation. Photo Credit: Alex Howard

Phone Directory. The House of Representatives has built and will release to the public in August an online telephone directory. Using responsive design, so that it works on mobile devices, the phone directory allows anyone to obtain phone numbers and address information for any House staffer via a cleverly-designed interface. You can sort by member office, committee, or search for a particular staffer.

A screenshot of the new telephone directory website.

It’s also possible to download the underlying data set, whether as a CSV or PDF. This may save the House money on printing directories and provide more up-to-date information, particularly as staff move around all the time. The website was built by the Clerk and is extensible, so it may become possible to include the staff issue areas at a future date.

Congress.gov Data Updates. In response to public requests, the bulk data behind Congress.gov will be updated every four hours so that users can download the most recent data. Coming soon will be an RSS feed that will tell users when the data has been updated, so users known when to run their update processes. This is a change from the once-a-day update, which was discussed at the last Bulk Data Task Force meeting and had created problems for some users. The data updates will also be reflected on the GitHub page so that programmatic users will know specifically which data has changed.

Congress.gov Interface Updates. Congress.gov now has legislative alerts and other new tools (including improving command line and other searches). On July 5th, THOMAS will be retired after 21 1/2 years of service.

Office of Law Revision Counsel. The OLRC had 4 significant updatesbuilding on work from last year.

First, it will expand information about non-positive law that’s made available to the public to include XML format, not just PDFs.

Second, the development of Ramseyers — to track changes for legislation reported out of committee — is proceeding and it is expected to be used as part of the legislative process. This goes hand in hand with the Amendment Impact Program, which eventually will be publicly available and will make it possible to see how amendments change bills and bills would change laws in real time.

Third, the legislative lookup and link tool, which provides contextual information about references inside legislation, will become a public tool that everyone can look up on a public website.

Fourth, the OLRC is developing with leg counsel a new/updated legislative markup language to encompass new uses and data types. This is a second generation legislative markup language, of which the first was the Bill DTDs, and will empower many more ways to make sense out of legislative language.

And Still More

Josh Tauberer retelling Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. Photo Credit: Alex Howard.

I don’t want to get too deep into everything else for the sake of brevity. However, I do want to briefly mention:

  • The presentations on the use of mapping (GIS) data, particularly a fascinating presentation by CRS on the different kinds of maps they can generate for congressional staff. Additionally, it’s worth noting how Rep. Takano’s office uses maps to keep track of communications from constituents. The Senate’s GIS working group is of particular interest to anyone who wants to use geographic data to understand policy issues.
  • A great discussion on “consuming the law” which delved deep into when/whether it is possible for leg support offices to move towards focusing on electronic/online publication and moving away from print.
  • There’s much more, including great panels on five hacks for congress, the unfinished (digitization) work of congress, Josh’s excellent Mr. Smith presentation, UK and New Zealand digitization efforts, and the future of legislative publishing.

If you want still more, here are recaps of prior Legislative Data and Transparency Conferences:

2016 Legislative Data and Transparency Conference is this Tuesday, June 21

The House’s Legislative Data and Transparency Conference is this Tuesday, June 21, from 9-4, in the Capitol Visitor Center auditorium in Washington, DC. RSVP here.

The conference brings together individuals from Legislative Branch agencies with data users and transparency advocates to foster a conversation about the use of legislative data – addressing how agencies use technology well and how they can use it better in the future. This is the 5th annual conference, and the conversations that take place help change the nature of government.

House Speaker Paul Ryan and and the UK’s Director of Parliamentary Digital Service Rob Greig will both address the conference.Continue Reading

House of Reps’ Spending Info Is Now Online as Data

Yesterday the House of Representatives began publishing its spending data online as a spreadsheet (and continued publishing it online as a PDF file).

As Josh Tauberer explains in Open Government Data: The Book, the compilation of spending data, known as the Statements of Disbursements, includes “how much congressmen and their staffs are paid, what kinds of expenses they have, and who they are paying for those services.” While it does not contain all the nitty-gritty details, the Disbursements data can tell you a lot about the health and activities of Congress.

Yesterday’s publication includes the full dataset for the first quarter of 2016 in a 17.8 MB CSV file, and a smaller 502 KB summary file in CSV format. The information is also published as a PDF, which it has been since November 2009.Continue Reading

Next Steps in Congressional Openness: News from the May Bulk Data Task Force Meeting

The 21 year-old legislative information website THOMAS will be retired on July 5 was the top news from last Wednesday’s congressional Bulk Access to Legislative Data public meeting. The fact that THOMAS was shutting down was not news, but the timing was.

While it didn’t generate a story in the press, two other developments are particularly important regarding how Congress engages the public. For the first time, the meeting was webcast and panelists—who came from offices and agencies throughout the legislative branch—responded to questions from people inside and outside the room. This will soon become regular practice; and video will shortly be available. Even more striking, Congress is responding to technical comments made on GitHub to the data it releases, creating an ongoing, real-time conversation about public access to legislative information with all the relevant stakeholders. This is a big deal. Continue Reading

So Long, THOMAS

The Library of Congress announced that the legislative information website THOMAS is scheduled to stop functioning on July 5, with Congress.gov to replace its functionality. This will allow the Library to focus all its energy on Congress.gov instead of having also to maintain a very awkward, 21-year-old website.Continue Reading

Bulk Data Task Force Meets Wednesday 4/27 at 10:30

The Congressional Bulk Data Task Force will meet this Wednesday at 10:30 am in the Legislative Resource Center in the Cannon Building near room 133. The Library of Congress graciously has offered to host the event online– go here after 10:15ish for a live feed.

On the agenda:

3 Cheers for the Door Stop Awards

The OpenGov Foundation hosted the Door Stop Awards yesterday, which recognized the largely (but not entirely) unsung efforts to open the doors of Congress to the American people.

Last night, at the first ever Door Stop Awards last night, six Members of Congress and congressional staff were honored by the open government community for their tireless efforts to drag Congress into the digital age and make the legislative branch more open, responsive, and accountable.Continue Reading

House Publishes Its Rules, Jefferson’s Manual, & More Online as Structured Data

Today the Government Publishing Office published the House Manual — which contains Rules of the House of Representatives, Jefferson’s Manual, and other important legislative documents — online in a structured data format on GitHub. GPO did so pursuant to direction from the House Rules Committee, which was acting in accordance with the rules package passed at the beginning of the 114th Congress, which declares:

The House shall continue efforts to broaden the availability of legislative documents in machine readable formats in the One Hundred Fourteenth Congress in furtherance of the institutional priority of improving public availability and use of legislative information produced by the House and its committees.

The online publication of key legislative documents as structured data is a welcome development. The Congressional Data Coalition has for a long time requested the enhancement, which empowers further analysis and reuse of the information in many different context. I, for one, will be glad to be able to automatically track revisions in the House Rules from Congress to Congress. I know others will find much more insightful uses.

All the offices and agencies involved with the project deserve congratulations, including: the House Rules Committee, the House Parliamentarian, the Clerk of the House, and the U.S. Government Publishing Office. (I’m sure there are more.)

The House Manual, as helpfully explained in the user guide to using the electronic version of the manual, includes:

  • the U.S. Constitution
  • Jefferson’s Manual
  • the Rules of the House of Representatives
  • Provisions of the Legislative Reorganization Acts
  • Congressional Budget Act laws
  • Legislative Procedures

All of the files can be found here. I have not had an opportunity to fully review what’s online — for example, I’m trying to find an unannotated version of the House Rules— but GPO has helpfully requested feedback on the GitHub page.

House Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions hailed the move in a statement:

Technology plays an important role in our daily lives, and it is necessary that the House keep up with the most efficient and effective ways to provide information about Congressional activities. As Chairman of the House Rules Committee, I am committed to the advancement of sharing legislative data online and am confident that our efforts will result in a better informed public.

GPO explained, in a press release, the value of publishing the documents in a more flexible format:

Making Government information available in XML permits data to be reused and repurposed not only for print output but for conversion into ebooks, mobile web applications, and other forms of content delivery, including data mashups and other analytical tools by third party providers, which contributes to openness and transparency in Government.

Good job. And thank you.

Continue Reading

2016 Legislative Data & Transparency Conference Set for June 21

The Committee on House Administration will host its fifth annual Legislative Data and Transparency Conference on June 21, from 9-4 in the U.S. Capitol.

Free registration is now open. Continue Reading