Sunlight Foundation Adds LOUIS and Insanely Useful Websites for Congressional Observers
Posted On July 16, 2007
When it comes to watchdogging politics, Justice Louis Brandeis once observed, "Sunshine is the best disinfectant and electric light the most efficient policeman." Dedicated to lighting up Congress' activities, the Sunlight Foundation (www.sunlightfoundation.com) continues to expand its array of digital tools designed to help voters find out what their representatives are doing with citizens' taxes. One new specialized search engine is entitled LOUIS (Library Of Unified Information Sources; www.louisdb.org) in honor of Justice Brandeis. Another tool collects helpful digital resources under the banner of Insanely Useful Websites (www.sunlightfoundation.com/resources).
LOUIS provides single search query access to the content of seven federal government databases: Congressional Reports, Congressional Record, Congressional Hearings, Federal Register, Presidential Documents, GAO (Government Accountability Office) Reports, and Bills & Resolutions. Files date from 2001 and update daily. At launch, the beta test service covered more than 300,000 documents. Though most of the data sets are already available on various governmental and nongovernmental portals, e.g., the Library of Congress' Thomas portal (http://thomas.loc.gov), LOUIS does offer some very useful features. Ellen Miller, co-founder and executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, pointed out that LOUIS would "give citizens a one-stop, Google-like ability to search across disparate information sources in order to examine the workings of the federal government."
Experienced searchers are always a tad wary when offered simple search solutions to complicated questions and complex databases. Though the LOUIS site makes a search window for "All Categories" the default at the top of the home page, its educational screencast pushes users into constructing separate searches for each of the different sources. Users are shown how each database has its own structure and jargon. The "Google-like" interface may cross over all files, but, fortunately, the results display shows results source by source, again encouraging the user to do more digging in specific sources.
Laura Gordon-Murnane, frequent writer for Searcher magazine on all things federal (for example, "Politics and Tech Tools: Blogs, Aggregators, and Tracking Tools," October 2006, www.infotoday.com/searcher/oct06/Gordon-Murnane.shtml), also liked the display layout, arranged by categories, so "you know where [the output] comes from by type. It's like a federated search. You can restrict it to types or extend to all." Display results in the Congressional Record file can join the text of a bill to a day's debate into a single URL presentation or a printable/downloadable text.
Most of all, Gordon-Murnane liked the LOUIS site's ability to "turn a search query into an RSS feed on everything, all the different content. This is really useful in helping to keep abreast of hearings and committee reports. That's different from Thomas." The orange icon next to the source results seems to encourage users to build multiple RSS feeds in specific, full-featured source sets. The Sunlight Foundation also offers other RSS feeds, e.g., Blended Blog Feed and Ethics Watch.
The LOUIS site also offers an open source API that lets computer programmers build their own applications using the database and the computer code developed for LOUIS. Sunlight Labs, which assembled the technology behind LOUIS, has a mission of building open source code for Netizens. According to Miller, Sunlight is not suggesting what people should do with the API. "We didn't stop to envision. We're part of the open source world. People are limited by their own creativity." Though not making suggestions, they are monitoring use of the API.
The Insanely Useful Websites link ties to 21 sites tracking "government and legislative information, campaign contributions and the role of money in politics" (www.sunlightfoundation.com/node/2). Though making no claim to be a complete list of such sites, the collectors seem to have focused on advanced sites that use Web 2.0 methods to combine and filter data innovatively, e.g., with mashups. Two Sunlight staff members review the sites, along with additional government information sites, and have weekly blog updates to educate searchers on their usefulness.
Since 2006, the Sunlight Foundation has concentrated on developing tools for making Congress "transparent." Its information services concentrate on exposing and reducing corruption, ensuring accountability, and—someday—fostering public trust. Others of those tools include Congresspedia, a wiki that taps citizen input for an array of structured Congressional coverage and OpenCongress.org, a merger of official government information with news and blog coverage and an RSS feed for tracking bills, votes, or members of Congress. Sunlight has issued about $2 million to groups for digitization of existing information about Congress and applying Internet technology to its mission. LOUIS itself began as a $15,000 grant to two Vermont-based developers who built an SGML repository indexed by a MySQL database that moved to Sunlight Labs.
When asked about possible overlap between Congressional coverage sources produced by Sunlight, Miller agreed that some overlap did exist. However, she asserted that different users come to the data with different needs and different search patterns. "People approach their need for information in different ways. For example, an RSS feed from LOUIS may be too broad. If you want something specific to legislation, you might want to use OpenCongress.org, but if you want regulatory information or committee reports or Congressional Record, then you might want LOUIS. We deliberately developed different lines. We're not worried about competing with ourselves. We offer different sources and research methods to make it more user friendly. I'll admit. We're growing like Topsy. We want all our sites to look like Sunlight sites and, although you can get to almost all of them from the Sunlight Foundation site, they can sometimes be hard to find there."
Sunlight asks users to supply feedback and suggestions for both of these new services.