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The Visual Display of Legislative Information

BY Nancy Scola | Wednesday, April 7 2010

Via the good folks at the Sunlight Foundation comes word that IBM's Research Labs, makers of the rather awesome web-based visualization app Many Eyes, has rolled out a public beta of a project called Many Bills. In short, Many Bills, launched Monday, color-codes and organizes congressional bills (limited bills dropped in 2009 at this point) to make it easier for us to quickly comprehend what's in a particular bill, some of which, you may have heard, can be thousands of pages long.

The innovation of Many Bills is that it, automagically, discerns which sections of bills pertain to which areas of interest. Take, for example, the 2009 Food Safety Enhancement Act. That 160-page bill, of course, pertains to food issues, but, like many pieces of legislation, it also touches on much more. Many Bills color-codes it section by section according to what's relevant to trade, consumer protections, education, and more. Click on a section, and bloop, it expands to display the accompanying bill text. (You can follow along with @manybills.) Because with Many Bills it's computers, and not legislative attorneys or issue-area experts making the determinations, each issue-area designation is marked with a percentage of certainty, which is a nice touch.

We've touched on the burgeoning "plain language" movement here on the blog before, but Many Bills is a way to take the mountain to Mohammed. Rather than attempting to force Congress to write legislation in a clearer manner, which is made all but impossible not only by habit but by the confusing process by which bills amend existing law, visualizations like this are aimed at making the complex nearly instantly intelligible. In truth, Many Bills isn't perfect, but it actually makes it somewhat easier for someone to scan a bill, and see where it might be relevant to their own interests. The lessons learned here could be useful more broadly, like in the push by the Obama adminsitration to get credit cart statements that are more intelligible to normal humans.

Also on the political visualization front, Andrew Whitacre had an interesting post recently about how the problem with data visualizations is the lack of transparency in the data supply chain. And just because it's kinda funny, the Chesire (CT) Herald had a local-man-made-good story yesterday on a resident who had taken up a post. He'll be part of four-person board advising the federal government on how to visualize economic-recovery data on Recovery.gov. "The practical consequence is that I will probably go to Washington several days each month, in addition to whatever homework and phone meetings are necessary," reports Chesireite Edward Tufte.

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