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What Congress.gov Means for a Congressional API

BY Nick Judd and Miranda Neubauer | Wednesday, September 19 2012

The Library of Congress today unveiled beta.congress.gov, a new web platform offering legislative information that is expected to eventually replace the existing THOMAS system and the congressional Legislative Information System.

The Library announced earlier this year that this was in the works, and open-government advocates responded with lukewarm appreciation. For at least one of them, today's launch signals that the Library is ready to take the next step: turning their system from a website only into something more like a web application, providing an interface that developers could use to pull data on Congress directly from an official source or, better yet, download data in bulk.

"I'm impressed," said Josh Tauberer, whose GovTrack scrapes data from THOMAS to provide it in a machine-readable form for other websites like OpenCongress, in an email. "From its new faceted search to its mobile-friendly HTML, they really hit the technology on the nail. And there's more explanation for people who aren't legislative pros. They may be slowly catching up to GovTrack.

"This new site shows that the LOC actually has the technical chops to implement raw data properly, which was a serious concern of mine before," Tauberer also wrote.

That said, Tauberer pointed out that the new site offers "no new actual information." House leadership has promised to offer access to the underlying data that fuels THOMAS and has repeatedly expressed a commitment to doing it. They just haven't committed to doing it during this Congress. And the lack of action on something that seems to them to be eminently doable has advocates kind of frustrated.

Gayle Osterberg, Director of Communications for the Library of Congress, seemed to indicate in an email that the Library of Congress is ready to cooperate. They just need Congress — meaning the House and Senate both — to give them the go-ahead.

In an email to techPresident, she wrote:

The underlying platform of the new site supports any features that may be required or requested by Congress, including multiple distribution models such as API. The manner in which data is provided is at the direction of Congress and at this time Congress has not requested that data be provided in that manner.

While the THOMAS system, named for Thomas Jefferson and launched in 1995, averages 10 million visits each year, the Library of Congress feels that the existing system can no longer support the demands and capabilities of a modern online interface, especially on mobile devices.

The new platform is expected to operate as a beta site for the next year to gather feedback and the refine the functionality.

By the end of 2012, bill summaries and bill status from the 93rd Congress through the present will be available, as will bill text from the 103rd Congress through the present. Additional resources to be added to the platform during the beta state are the Congressional Record, the Congressional Record index, House and Senate calendars, congressional reports, committee landing pages, nominations, treaties and executive communications.

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