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Omnibus Calls for Bulk Data Downloads

BY Nancy Scola | Friday, March 6 2009

Nestled in the gargantuan omnibus appropriations bill currently cooling its heals before Congress is a snippet of language that may be of interest. What the provision, inserted by Silicon Valley Democrat Mike Honda, would do is start the process of pushing out federal legislative records in bulk, directly to the public. Wired's Kim Vitter has details on Honda's provision. The raison d'être of the Library of Congress' THOMAS system, as you likely know, is to make legislative documents accessible, from bill texts to Congressional Research Service summaries to co-sponsor lists to status updates. THOMAS was cutting edge when it was introduced. Of course, that was back when Bill Clinton was waxing futuristic about bridges to the 21st century. Today, it's showing its age. Working with THOMAS can be an exercise in frustration. The lack of persistent URLS, for example, means that individual documents can be difficult to link to directly. And THOMAS isn't great at engaging the public on the colloquial level it has towards legislation. (Try search THOMAS for "stimulus.") THOMAS today is a pretty good database with a lagging user interface attached.

User-friendly sites like OpenCongress (which, hey and by the way, has just released a bunch of new features, including a wiki) have stepped in to fill the breach, but they work by scraping THOMAS. Honda's office is looking for help determining the best method for pushing out bulk legislative data, whether that's an API or, Honda's online director Rob Pierson tells Wired, "some sort of bulk-data download." Share your thoughts here or in Wired's comments, and Honda's office is sure to see them.