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A New Home for Data on Politics and State Governments

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Tuesday, May 7 2013

Minnesotans interested in tracking state-level legislation recently received a gift, of sorts, in the form of a new state-level legislative tracker created by the non-profit news outlet MinnPost.

The legislative tracker follows legislation that the editors deem important or related to issues that in which readers expressed an interest.

I use the word 'gift,' because historically, services like his one cost political professionals thousands of dollars in subscription fees. This project, which provides the tracking information free to the public, was enabled by data collected by the government transparency group The Sunlight Foundation*. MinnPost's bill tracker uses Sunlight's Open States API, which provides information about state legislatures' bills, legislators, committees and their hearings, and political districts and their boundaries. Alan Palazzolo, an interactive developer at MinnPost, created the application to curate the information available about bills moving through the state legislature. The app displays prime bill sponsors and co-sponsors in both chambers, recent legislative actions, and links to full texts. And the code, improved while Palazzolo worked out of ProPublica's offices in New York City to make the application more usable for other state news organizations, is open-source. Just last week, Columbia University's New York World unveiled its own version of the application.

This kind of uptake delights the staff at the Sunlight Foundation, whose raison d'etre is to use information technology to make government more accessible and accountable to its citizens. Over the weekend, as journalists, activist and government workers descended on George Washington University for Sunlight's Transparency Camp event in Washington D.C., the group unveiled its new data services portal, which is meant to better showcase projects built around its APIs.

"We want to demonstrate the power and importance of these APIs in open government work," said Liz Bartolomeo, Sunlight's media director.

Besides listing projects and offering status alerts about Sunlight's various APIs, the portal's goal is to make similar serendipitous cross-country connections between developers. The portal features a list of open government projects that can be replicated, as well as others that need outside help in the form of coding or analysis. Civic-minded developers wanting to jump into local projects can also look up events on the site's calendar or join an API discussion list.

A variety of groups across the political spectrum have called on the group's data. Sunlight data available through the portal has been used to track state legislators who are members of the American Legislative Exchange Council or to track legislators' voting records, for example. One enterprising individual with an expertise in data visualization even created a tally of the number of times certain words related to the concept of "kindness" appear historically on any given day in the Congressional Record. That project uses Sunlight's Capitol Words API.

These projects are fascinating, but as the creators of the bill tracker for New York State note themselves, this is just the beginning. As they also say, many of the laws enacted in New York State actually are negotiated at the last minute, behind closed doors.

"That means that many of the most important bills to be voted on by the legislature won’t even exist, at least not publicly, until the middle or even end of June," they write. "But we aren’t letting that exercise in non-democracy stop us. The New York World’s bill tracker is a work in evolution. We’re starting with selected measures that our reporters have determined are significant right now. As other bills come into play, we’ll add them to our tracker — down to the final hours of session if need be."

* TechPresident publisher Andrew Rasiej and editorial director Micah Sifry are senior advisers to the Sunlight Foundation.