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House Republicans Release More Data Catnip for Developers

BY Nick Judd | Thursday, January 10 2013

The Government Printing Office has begun providing access to legislation from the 113th Congress in four compressed XML files — one for bills, one for resolutions, one for joint resolutions, and one for continuing resolutions.

This consolidates access to information about legislation in the House of Representatives. It is an incremental step forward for technologists who build tools that make it easier to explain to the rest of us what Congress is doing. These technologists already have a single source of "bulk data" — that is, suitable for them to use in their own applications — on legislation and legislators, some of which goes all the way back to the start of the nation. But that information is provided by a third-party source maintained by an independent developer. It isn't an official source. The idea is that Congress should be doing that work itself. Under House Speaker John Boehner, Republicans have promised to deliver in this field. They've begun live-streaming committee meetings and have already launched other data feeds, such as of upcoming floor votes and, most recently, House floor summaries.

"What we're seeing with the bills bulk data project is how the wave of culture change is moving through government," Joshua Tauberer of Govtrack told me an email. "This isn't a technical feat by any means, but it is a cultural feat," he continued. "The House and GPO worked together to institutionalize a new way for the House to publish bulk data."

The announcement is the latest in a series of small steps that Boehner's leadership has made on transparency since taking over in 2009. The pace of progress has not always been satisfactory for transparency advocates. This summer, House Republicans ruffled some feathers among the sunlight-as-disinfectant crowd by appointing a task force to consider the technical details of providing more data for developers rather than just going ahead and getting it done. Transparency advocates like Tauberer, whose Govtrack system actually browses Congress' outdated THOMAS legislative search engine to compile the data and then make it more easily available, complained that none of the programmatic ins and outs were really that difficult. But the consensus seems to be that some progress is better than none. Tauberer and his cohorts balanced praise with criticism.

"[T]here is no feedback loop with the users of this data," Tauberer told me. "The incremental approach can't work unless the users of the data have a way to tell GPO what is and is not working. There is no public point of contact for these files, and I don't even know a private point of contact at GPO."

The data will be available for this Congress, and, presumably, subsequent congresses to come — but the government is not yet providing bulk access to data on previous sessions of Congress.

"We'll have more announcements to come in the months ahead," Boehner spokesman Don Seymour said in an email. "And that's one of the purposes of the bulk data task force -- to get everyone that has a role in producing or distributing legislative data together and figure out the best way to move forward, making sure these reforms (like many of the other ones we've started: streaming committee hearings, for example) become a standard part of what the House does."

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