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State-Level Legislatures' Bills to Get First Machine Reading

BY Nick Judd | Tuesday, January 18 2011

State-level open government and open data enthusiasts just got a new experiment to work with, as OpenGovernment.org, a project to provide easier access to information about the deliberations of state legislatures, launched Tuesday.

A project of the Participatory Politics Foundation and The Sunlight Foundation*, OpenGovernment.org takes the platform that powers OpenCongress.org, built to allow people to track and form community around federal legislation, and applies it to state legislatures.

More people are using web applications to better capture, organize and parse information about the world around them, and leaning on technology that allows them to tap machine-readable data or the opinions of people in their online social networks in the effort. There's potential here to apply that process to government, and give people the ability to track and respond to what they think is really important rather than what dominates the "political narrative" or the "news cycle." That, anyway, is the idea.

"Our site's emerged as a go-to resource for government transparency in the U.S. Congress," David Moore, PPF's executive director, said of OpenCongress.org during a Jan. 14 interview at PPF's offices in SoHo. (Which are, by the way, on the same floor of the same building as Personal Democracy Forum's own digs.)

Moore said that OpenCongress, which was conceived in 2004, has over 1 million users a month when Congress is in session, and has a registered community of over 150,000 people.

"The situation with all 50 states is the same as it was before OpenCongress existed," Moore continued. "Government, official government websites for state legislatures, are clunky and not up to technical standards. No one uses them. Political bloggers and issue-based groups need free tools to track and share what's going on with government as part of their work."

Functionally speaking, OpenGovernment.org is a wrapper for data gleaned and cleaned by the Sunlight Foundation's Open State Project, which uses a variety of scrapers and other tools to collect and standardize legislative data, then push them out for developers using an API. It also adds the ability to comment, track news and get information about legislators associated with a bill.

Between an increase in machine-readable data at the congressional level and apps contests that the Sunlight Foundation and others have held to kickstart interest, a big community has formed at the federal level around making politics and the legislative process transparent for the average American, said James Turk, who manages the Open State Project for Sunlight.

"We think we're going to see a similar ecosystem develop around state-level data," Turk told me in a phone interview on Jan. 14, "and the [average] citizen actually has a much greater chance to make a difference at the state level."

This assumes, of course, that Sunlight can plow through the mishmash of legislative data it has promised to deliver through an API. Currently, the Open State Project says it's ready to provide a steady stream of data from five states: California, Louisiana, Maryland, Texas, and Wisconsin. Another 11 states have experimental data feeds. Turk expects to be providing feeds for every state by the end of the year.

At launch, OpenGovernment.org carried information for the five states for which Open State Project is already providing data.

UPDATE: The site pulls in data from many sources, not just Open State Project, including information on campaign contributors and the recipients of their beneficence as compiled by the National Institute on Money in State Politics. It also allows users to track legislation by issue and by legislator, similar to the way OpenCongress works.

Disclosure: Our Micah Sifry and Andrew Rasiej are senior technology advisors to the Sunlight Foundation.