The 2016 Legislative Data and Transparency Conference (#ldtc16), hosted by the Committee on House Administration, brought individuals from the legislative branch together with data users and advocates to review existing efforts to improve access to legislative data and explore what else could and should be done to increase government transparency. The day was devoted to efforts underway in Congress to make it easier for the public to understand what their representatives in Washington, D.C., are doing on their behalf and to enable citizens to participate in the process, as well as to make it easier for Congress members to do their jobs. A recording of the conference, as well as links to past events (2012–2015), can be found on the committee’s website.
Government Website Updates
The conference began with an update from the House Bulk Data Task Force. Established in 2012, it has spent 4 years working with civil society groups to understand how governments can use new technologies to modernize their systems and workflows, delivering machine-readable data. The progress that Congress has made, from 1789 to the present, is illustrated in the Technology Timeline.
The fruits of this task force’s labor are evidenced in the new govinfo site as well as in the addition to the Federal Digital System (FDsys; which will eventually be replaced by govinfo) of the text of legislative bills in XML format, bill summaries, and House of Representatives and Senate bill status information. Bills’ statuses update every 4 hours, refreshing the data available. The system now indicates when batch jobs have been processed and completed to ensure the use of current data. An RSS feed will be added to a future release.
Significant improvements to Congress.gov have been implemented during the past year, including the following:
- The ability to save a search and receive alerts by clicking on RSS feeds in the footer
- The use of the advanced search query builder to dig deeper into a legislation search through facets
- The addition of legislative bill text to the quick search function, which permits a side-by-side comparison of versions
- The addition of a web-friendly display for the Daily Digest of the Congressional Record
On Aug. 1, 2016, the House of Representatives released an app of its official internal telephone directory that includes names, titles, and phone numbers for each staffer in the 435 member offices. Designed to be responsive, the information displays equally easily on a mobile phone, tablet, or desktop computer. The conference attendees had the opportunity to point to several enhancements that would be helpful in a future release, including the addition of email addresses and the specific issues for which staffers are responsible.
GIS Data and Legislative Composition
The morning’s second panel offered an overview of how Congress uses geographic information system (GIS) data. Several Senate offices and committees use Esri’s Senate Analytical Mapping System, a product provided for free to congressional offices; the House MAP (Mapping and Analytic Platform) allows members to visualize their districts in terms of demographics and issues. These GIS tools are vital for Congress members who need to understand the makeup of their districts. They include the ability to share mapped data so the public can appreciate the effect congressional action will have on issues about which they are passionate. The final speaker on the panel described the ways in which the Congressional Research Service (CRS) assists members in understanding the data available from various federal agencies that could assist in their analysis of issues.
The Office of the Legislative Counsel has worked hard to indicate how a proposed bill would change the legislative language of existing law, recognizing that Congress remains challenged by the amendment process and by the difficulties of introducing small changes into bills that can run 1,000-plus pages. Legislative Lookup and Link (LLL)—an initiative to introduce hyperlinks to statutes so every reference is linked (and contextualized)—is a significant step in the right direction. Lisa LaPlant, FDsys’ program manager, announced a new, web-based legislative composition system, Amendment Impact, which will launch in beta next year. It will indicate in real time how an amendment might affect a bill.
Five Hacks for Congress
The session leading into the lunch break, 5 Hacks for Congress: Cross-Cutting Opportunities to Build a Better Government, was moderated by Seamus Kraft of The OpenGov Foundation and featured Kathy Goldschmidt of the Congressional Management Foundation (CMF) and Ethan Chumley of Microsoft’s Civic & Tech Engagement team. All three recognize the need to modernize the critical infrastructure of Congress. There is so much data and information being thrown at members and their staffers about each issue, and it’s unlikely that there will be an increase in staffers to assist or a windfall of funding to support those responsible for timely responses to constituent correspondence.