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Congress Mulls API For Congressional Data 121

Amerika sends in a Wired blog post on the desire in Congress to make data on lawmaking more easily available to the public. The senator who introduced the language into an omnibus appropriations bill wants feedback on the best way to make (e.g.) the Library of Congress's Thomas data more available — an API or bulk downloads, or both. Some comments on the blog posting call for an authenticated versioning system so we can know unequivocally how any particular language made its way into a bill. "Congress has apparently listened to the public's complaints about lack of convenient access to government data. The new Omnibus Appropriations Bill includes a section, introduced by Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), that would mark the first tangible move toward making federal legislative data available to the public in bulk, so third parties can mash it up and redistribute it in innovative and accessible ways. This would include all the data currently distributed through the Library of Congress's Thomas web site — bill status and summary information, lists of sponsors, tracking timelines, voting records, etc."
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Congress Mulls API For Congressional Data

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  • by yurik ( 160101 ) on Friday March 06, 2009 @12:06PM (#27092181)

    The process of the bill writing seems to me to be very similar with how the Wikipedia articles get started / mature. Wikipedia API was designed specifically to work with the bulk data (see [] ) - we can just adapt a similar approach.

    (Shameless plug: I was the dev who implemented the original wiki api)

  • by mbone ( 558574 ) on Friday March 06, 2009 @12:06PM (#27092193)

    I have long thought that there should be a logic-based language for laws, at least for laws like the Tax code. My original idea in this direction was prolog, but something built on top of XML is probably more appropriate today.

    It should, for example, be possible to automatically check that some 400 page law doesn't contain 1 paragraph that totally changes some other law, or that, say, 20 pages of consumer protections are not negated by two lines 100 pages later. The legal language used is already close to meta-code, but right now this all has to be checked by hand, allowing untold mischief. It should also be possible to check for logical inconsistencies and missing if-then-else options.

    Some I am sure will see the current ... flexibility as a feature, not a bug, but I think it is high time to be able to do some automatic checking of what the Congress is doing and what proposed laws actually mean.

  • Re:Law for geeks (Score:5, Interesting)

    by orclevegam ( 940336 ) on Friday March 06, 2009 @12:08PM (#27092221) Journal
    They should use something like GIT and assign each congress critter a login (and make the revision history available to the public). Not only could we follow the larger modifications of a bill at the central level as it moves through congress, but we could look at the branches each congress critter checks in and see what kinds of modifications occur in their own office. What would be really neat is if someone then took that data and did a bit of correlation between changes made at particular times and recent visits of lobbyists. Imagine the questions that might be raised if a congress critter has a recent visit by say a Microsoft lobbyist, and then a few days later amends a seemingly unrelated bill in a way that turns out to be beneficial to MS.
  • Re:Law for geeks (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Lord Bitman ( 95493 ) on Friday March 06, 2009 @12:40PM (#27092593) Homepage

    I don't know about how git works for you, but for me, it requires a non-blank commit message. And if someone browses the log and sees a non-meaningful message, a message that doesn't explain the whole commit, or a singe commit which does "too much at once", questions get asked.

    That's why we need "Git for government". Lots of small commits, references to why they happened (ie: links to C-Span video, audio or transcripts from meetings, etc)

    This is something which needs to be taken on by someone on some level. It's not something which will happen immediately when someone passes a law requiring it. It'll need to be someone going up to a local lawmaker and dedicating all their time (100% of it) to tracking changes for them. Find out what's needed in terms of an interface to get real people to want to use it, make it so that non-programmers can benefit from it. Do this for one person, let anyone clone the results, and always be public about willingness to do it for anyone.
    Re-election time comes around, and the person you're "sponsoring" gets to say: "I'm all for government transparency. Every last paragraph I've put into a bill over the past two years has an explanation attached to it. The service I use to make this available to the public is free for any lawmaker, and similar methods are available for free to all members of the public. Why has my opponent not bothered to do the same? What is he trying to hide?"

    I would love to see an organization form around this very concept. "Free version control for government", a service provided by volunteers for absolutely anyone involved in writing laws or policy.

    I don't see it as something which would ever really happen, of course.

  • by justcauseisjustthat ( 1150803 ) on Friday March 06, 2009 @12:45PM (#27092691)
    All legislation should be written and updated in a CVS so that changes can be tracked easily, saving time & money, and also tracking who made what changes.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 06, 2009 @12:49PM (#27092737)

    Go to and ask for some funding to work on this as a project if you feel strongly about it.

  • XML (Score:3, Interesting)

    by HighOrbit ( 631451 ) on Friday March 06, 2009 @01:38PM (#27093401)
    Don't reinvent the wheel, just use existing standards. US Code (law), Code of Fedreal Regulations, legislative bills are all already highly structured documents. And what commonly used data format is widely used for structured documents?


    XML. The answer here is define to several XML schemas (schemata) to capture the structure of these documents and use existing standards and technology (i.e web services over http) to distribute. None of that is rocket science or would required years of development effort, but may required years of exectuion. Its not hard; its tedious. The tedious part will be converting all the old docs over to XML.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 06, 2009 @02:00PM (#27093721)

    Didn't Congress already address part of this with Although, the schema they designed use the default namespace, yuck.

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