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Hating on Thomas.gov

BY Nancy Scola | Tuesday, September 14 2010

As part of our continuing great debate about the worthiness of THOMAS.gov, the Library of Congress's online legislative information portal, David Moore of OpenCongress shares with me the opinion that as it stands, the 15-year-old site is woefully deficient.

"It's a preposterous failure," said Moore, "that 15 years after it launched, THOMAS still doesn't provide the public bulk data access or an open API." He went on to call Thomas an embodiment of "flailing, total incompetence in the form of bureaucratic inertia."

Moore made the case that THOMAS.gov (which will henceforth be known simply as Thomas.gov, because it hurts to look at all those capital letters) reads to him like a demonstration of what happens when those in power aren't eager to open up access to the valuable information they hold in their hands as a matter of course. Moore slams the front-end of Thomas for being unfriendly to users and criticizes the data back-end for poor data standardization and lack of public access to bulk data. Moore argued that Thomas.gov's long-term lack of both RSS feeds and simple "permalinks" to bill texts and other pages makes "a damning case that the team behind Thomas couldn't be trusted."

What would make a better Thomas.gov? The goal, says Moore and others, is to get the site in line with the 8 Principles of Open Government Data ("Timely, "Accessible," "Machine processable"...) which serve a talmudic purpose for open government advocates.

This micro-debate raises an interesting dynamic, one that echoes the debate over federal spending data that Red Hat's Gunnar Hellekson and some of the folks from Sunlight got into last week. I find Thomas.gov useful, and think it rather neat. But that take on it makes sense if you're starting from the position of assuming that having a full transparent, open, and accessible ruling government body would be something so new as to be of historic significance. Assume the worst and be pleasantly surprised by anything better, I guess. Moore and others have a Platonic ideal of completely open government in mind, one that Thomas.gov, by objective measures, falls short of.