Along with a cooperative network of civic hackers, the non-profit Participatory Politics Foundation (PPF) has launched OpenGovernment.org, a beta site for searching state legislative data. (OpenGovernment.org is not to be confused with OpenTheGovernment.org, a non-profit coalition advocating for improved access to government information, nor with OpenGovernmentData.org, a resource for developing applications using government data.) OpenGovernment.org is most closely related to OpenCongress.org, another PPF project. OpenCongress.org is a free website for finding, tracking, and learning about congressional bills and members of Congress. Both OpenCongress.org and the new OpenGovernment.org site are supported with data and financing from the Sunlight Foundation, a non-profit advocating for greater transparency and accountability in government operations.
PPF hopes to make OpenGovernment.org a place to find and track state legislation easily, a platform for interested citizens to discuss and share information on state issues, and a resource for other web developers wishing to add to the site or apply its model to other governments. For the beta, they have launched with only five states: California, Louisiana, Maryland, Texas, and Wisconsin. Even for these five states, PPF has more data and functionality to add. The beta release is meant to display the potential value and the technical approach taken for others interested in contributing. It is a good example of how data sharing and collaborative development can be applied to the democratic process.
Why develop this for state legislatures? Every state legislature in the U.S. already has its own free website reporting on its bills and other measures, just as the U.S. Congress has its THOMAS legislative information site. In fact, THOMAS helpfully links to each of the legislatures’ home pages, where you will find all of these state services. The National Conference of State Legislatures has its own free interface to the state sites, a searchable directory linking to bill information and other specialized resources on the legislatures’ websites. On their Legislative Sourcebook page, the Law Librarians’ Society of Washington, DC has perhaps the most compact list of state legislative resource links. There are also commercial services that add value to the states’ data by providing features such as 50-state searching or custom reporting. StateNet, for example, is a stand-alone subscription service and also powers the NCSL restricted-access Bill Information Service. The Legislative Information Service for America (LISA), a new service, provides real-time monitoring of action in 20 state legislatures and daily reports for the others. (See the Nov. 15, 2010 NewsBreak: “LISA: Real-time Monitoring of State Legislative Action.”)
With all of these existing resources, why do we need another service? The answer is the same as the reasons PPF built OpenCongress.org when we already had free access to THOMAS.gov and paid access to value-added subscription services. THOMAS.gov lacks many of the features the 2.0 world wants, such as personalized tracking; many people find it difficult to search; and—above all—it does not offer its data to the public in a free, standardized format for bulk download and re-use.
The open government data community generally endorses the principles of open data outlined on the OpenGovernmentData.org About page, those developed by open government advocates in 2007, or some variation on these. The principles include calls for data in standard, machine-readable formats and available for redistribution and reuse without license. THOMAS does not offer this. For the past 6 years, developer Joshua Tauberer has been scraping, or programmatically capturing, legislative data from THOMAS as a means of building GovTrack.us, his own interface to THOMAS and related data. His bill data, made open, has become a resource for others to develop legislative tools, including OpenCongress.org.
The OpenGovernment.org team is now using data scraped from state legislative sites to build the foundation for each state database. The data comes from Sunlight’s Open State Project. It is updated daily, but those new to state legislatures should be aware that they generally meet and are active for a much shorter period than the U.S. Congress.
What can you do with OpenGovernment.org right now? If you are interested in the legislatures of the five states now online, you’ll find a one-stop, integrated interface to information including the following:
When viewing a state bill, you can share the bill information via Twitter, Reddit, StumbleUpon, and Facebook and get an RSS feed of actions on your bills of interest. You can also share information on your legislators or get an RSS feed of their votes. Don’t know who your legislators are? The OpenGovernment.org People section for each state helps you to locate them by ZIP code or, where available, automatically based on your ISP location and other factors. An Issue section helps you to locate state bills by topic, and the Money Trail helps you track campaign contributions by industry.
PPF’s main goal is to provide, as their tagline states, “a public resource for government transparency” for community groups, watchdogs, reporters, and others to participate in promoting ethics and disclosure in government. Their partners in opening the data, such as the Open States Project, are also opening up possibilities for political science researchers, web developers, and people and purposes we can’t yet imagine. While the site is still very much in development, you can explore OpenGovernment.org to see what the future may hold for your research and your content.