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Recent Innovations in Open Government
by
Posted On June 14, 2016
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In the lead-up to the 50th anniversary of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA; #50DaysofFOIA) on July 4, 2016, there have been significant, largely positive events affecting the future of open government, including legislative, technological, and governmental activities. OpenTheGovernment.org has been counting down to the anniversary with a 50 Days of FOIA campaign: Each week highlights a different theme, such as success stories, technology advances, negative or obstructive agency responses, and legislative reform ideas.

Two Steps Forward (And Two Steps Back)

On April 26, 2016, Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.) and Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) introduced the OPEN (Open, Public, Electronic, and Necessary) Government Data Act, which requires government data assets made available by federal agencies to be published as machine-readable data using standardized, open (i.e., nonproprietary) formats. “If published government data assets are not available under an open license, the data must be considered part of the worldwide public domain,” the Senate bill’s summary states. “Agencies may engage with outside organizations and citizens to leverage public data assets for innovation in public and private sectors.” Passed unanimously by the Senate’s Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs on May 25, the bill will now be considered by the full Senate. (As of this writing, the House of Representatives’ version remains with the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform for consideration.)

Beginning with 1Q 2016, the House of Representatives agreed to release the quarterly “Statement of Disbursements” report, which details how lawmakers spend taxpayer dollars, as a machine-readable CSV file. Since 2009, the data has been made available in PDF; from 3Q 2009 to the end of 2015, the Sunlight Foundation parsed those PDF documents to make access to spending data easier and more intelligible. Also parsed by the Sunlight Foundation is Senate data, which is released in PDF every 6 months. According to the foundation, the Senate “has no plans to release this disbursement information in a machine-readable format.”

One of the setbacks of the past few weeks was the failure to amend the House’s appropriations bill to allow public access to Congressional Research Service (CRS) reports, covered in “A New Focus on Transparency for the Congressional Research Service.” Another step backward was Rep. Pete Olson’s (R-Texas) introduction of the FREE (Freeing Responsible and Effective Exchanges) Act, which would “amend the Federal Trade Commission Act to permit a bipartisan majority of Commissioners to hold a meeting that is closed to the public to discuss official business.” So much for sunshine.

Legislative Data Demo Day

The U.S. public deserves to have online access to all of the country’s laws, including earlier versions (plus amendments), in one place, along with the tools to extract meaning from this large dataset. On May 11, the Data Coalition hosted Legislative Data Demo Day to showcase efforts underway, both inside and outside of Congress, to help to make open legislative data a reality. Demonstrations included projects at the state and local levels as well as internationally, with models the U.S. government might want to adopt.

Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.) kicked off the event with a description of the bill he and Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) introduced, Statutes at Large Modernization Act, which would turn “United States Statutes at Large,” the official source for the laws and resolutions passed by Congress, into structured data. Currently, the publicationlists all laws sequentially, as published by Congress, since 1789. This makes understanding changes to laws through the years (as well as relationships among the laws) difficult, time-consuming, and costly to research. Open legislation is the right way to proceed, assuring easy access to accurate information. (The Library of Congress is responsible for maintaining Congress.gov, but the earliest data in its repository is from 1973.)

The following product demonstrations took place during the afternoon of Legislative Data Demo Day:

  • POPVOX aims to “connect people and government, empower effective participation, and create a transparent record that influences policy-making and fosters accountable, responsive governing,” according to its About page. Registered organizations can post their position statements on each bill, and verified constituents can provide input that is structured for delivery to the legislator, eliminating the need for time-consuming research. Slides are available from Legislative Data Demo Day’s POPVOX presentation.
  • Madison allows lawmakers to share legislation with citizens, who can use the same platform to add comments and suggest improvements. An example of an interactive document on which the public can raise questions and government staffers can respond is the Draft Open Data Policy. Slides are available from the Madison presentation.
  • Fastcase lets lawyers determine official documents by indicating when statutes have changed. Developed by lawyers at Covington & Burling, its structured, bulk downloadable data is now accessed by more than 800,000 lawyers. The legal research platform emphasizes the power of providing options for sorting and visualization. Slides are available from the Fastcase presentation.
  • Xcential provides cloud-based software tools for drafting, amending, publishing, and codifying laws. Part of the House Modernization Project, Xcential is also working on projects with the U.K.’s Parliament and California’s legislature. In addition, the company is participating in the Hong Kong Time Machine, which allows users to view what the law looked like at a single point in time. Slides and screenshots are available from the Xcential presentation.
  • The Legislative Documents in XML at the United States House of Representatives initiative is a joint undertaking of the Secretary of the Senate and the Clerk of the House, working with the Library of Congress, the U.S. Government Publishing Office (GPO), and the CRS. The initiative is responsible for producing “Document Type Definition files (DTDs) for use in the creation of legislative documents using XML.”

The final presentation of the day, given by V. David Zvenyach of 18F, showcased efforts to make regulations easier to find. Attendees were encouraged to compare the GPO’s Electronic Code of Federal Regulations (e-CFR) with 18F’s and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s eRegulations projects for alcohol, tobacco products, and firearms and for banks and banking.

Interagency Open Government Working Group Meeting

The Interagency Open Government Working Group, whose quarterly meeting was held May 24, is a “forum for open government professionals across agencies to share best practices to promote transparency, participation, and collaboration.” There were five topics on the agenda for this meeting, two of which highlighted how agencies have been successful as they include open data in their open government plans. Examples of open innovation efforts include the incorporation of challenges, contests, and prizes in those plans (e.g., Citizenscience.gov and NASA’s Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation). Resources highlighted during the meeting were Project Open Data and a public dashboard showing how federal agencies are performing with regard to the Open Data Policy, along with an update of progress toward the Cross-Agency Priority goals.


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Barbie E. Keiser is an information resources management consultant located in the metropolitan Washington, D.C., area.

Email Barbie E. Keiser

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