Kirsten Gullickson of the House of Representatives’ Office of the Clerk expressed a belief shared by participants that government data should be accessible, accurate, complete, described, free, machine-readable, permanent, searchable, timely, and usable. Significant progress is being made to improve the presentation, structure, and semantics associated with legislative documents. The U.S. Government Publishing Office (GPO) supports Congress’ XML Working Group, making the United States Legislative Markup (USLM) XML schema and XML DTDs for congressional bills, amendments, and resolutions available as authoritative sources on GitHub.
Several new sites were discussed during the day, including the following:
- The new Senate website launched on March 20 and features a sticky banner that offers Find Your Senators and View Archived Floor Proceedings options.
- Text of legislation that may be considered on the Congress floor and committee documents are posted in the House’s Document Repository in PDF and XML.
- The new Clerk of the House of Representatives site that will ultimately replace the current one offers easy access to legislative, member, and committee information. A link at the bottom of the homepage opens to streaming video of what’s happening on the floor: activity, bills, and votes. Its aggregated dashboard presents greater detail pulled from Congress.gov bulk data (schedules, legislative action, etc.).
Andrew Weber, legislative information systems manager at the Library of Congress, demonstrated the latest functionality added to Congress.gov: downloading search results in a comma-separated value (CSV) file. (Congress.gov became the official website for U.S. federal legislative information last summer when THOMAS was retired.) Other improvements made to the site during FY2017 include the addition of enhanced search forms (via Query Builder) and saved search alerts for legislation, nominations, member profiles, and the Congressional Record.
The legislative process is complicated and rarely predictable; the shortest route for a bill to become a law involves 20 decision points. Democracy Fund has created a map to illustrate all of the factors that have an impact on the speed with which members of Congress consider issues to tackle.
Joshua Tauberer, founder of GovTrack.us, and Sara Frug, associate director of Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute, discussed how standards and the technology work of others, such as CourtListener, are influencing their platforms. For example, the advanced search at GovTrack.us has been updated to allow a user to find all bills enacted, and legislator pages now list enacted bills that Congress members sponsored. GovTrack.us’ open data will be terminated once Congress begins its summer 2017 recess. The API was terminated when the ProPublica Congress API went live.
GovTrack.us began writing plain-language bill summaries in 2015. When the site doesn’t have its own, it pulls bill summaries from Wikipedia. Site improvements during 2016 included the display of “key votes” on members’ pages. Also added to the site were geographic maps of votes in the House and a link to ProPublica’s missed vote explanations. Every bill page has a link to if.then.fund, a sister site where users can make campaign contributions to members of Congress. Bill prediction scores about whether a bill will be enacted are now computed by Skopus Labs’ PredictGov.com. (For more about the use of artificial intelligence to predict which bills will pass, see John J. Nay’s research in PLOS ONE.)
The U.K. has a bicameral legislative structure like the U.S. does, but a single IT office serves both houses of Parliament, while the U.S. House and Senate each have a congressional IT office. Dan Barrett, head of data and search at the U.K.’s Parliamentary Digital Service, revealed a new public-facing website for Parliament. Learning from the development of data.parliament.uk and the limitations of the current site, his team also worked to understand and describe Parliament’s rules and relationships. Modernized software development practices and computing infrastructure make it easier to publish and find via search.
The conference’s keynote speaker, Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas), challenged his colleagues to make government data available, arguing that this would help Congress members know the right questions to ask and allow the public to use the data to solve problems. He acknowledged that the congressional IT procurement process is broken. Hurd hopes that the Modernizing Government Technology Act (HR 2227) will help CIOs avoid making rash decisions just to spend money in the final months of a fiscal year by allowing them to carry money from one fiscal year to the next. He’d like to see greater project management oversight, perhaps by providing original details of each contract and tracking progress through the period of performance. Also, Hurd feels that federal agency websites would improve if each had a customer experience manager devoted to making life easier for the user. On his current wish list is an app to show him the issues members of Congress are passionate about so he’ll know whom to approach to co-sponsor bills. Are any innovators ready to take on this challenge?
See a real-time review of the day’s sessions on Storify.