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What If Writing State Legislation Worked Like Writing Open-Source Code?

BY Miranda Neubauer | Thursday, July 11 2013

The OpenGov Foundation is receiving $200,000 from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to help bring a crowdsourcing platform for comments on legislation to state and local legislatures.

The office of Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) first announced Project Madison as the result of an all-night hackathon in December 2011 as a way for the public to comment on legislation Issa proposed with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) as an alternative to the Stop Online Piracy Act. He has since used it as a platform for the public markup of other Internet- and copyright-related proposals, such as the Internet American Moratorium Act and part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement.

Knight announced the funding Thursday at the Knight-funded Forum on Communication and Society (FOCAS) hosted by the Aspen Institute.

Seamus Kraft, a former Issa staffer who is now the foundation's executive director, explained that before a state-level Madison platform could be helpful, the underlying legal code had to be accessible. That became the case for Maryland in May when the foundation released the Maryland Code of Laws in an accessible format as part of the foundation's State Decoded project, a previous Knight News Challenge winner. Maryland is also the first state where the state-level platform will launch. Next week, Kraft said, the foundation will announce the release of its first city code in Baltimore. The local version of the Madison platform will launch there after the city code goes online.

"What we've discovered is that first we need a dataset for any of [this] to make sense," Kraft said. City council and state legislation is, in effect, "running track changes" on the existing law, he said. The plan is to release a first version for Maryland in the fall and to allow for three months of beta-testing before the next legislative session in January.

The idea is for the platform to have two tracks, one where users can start from scratch to draft a law, the other to update existing legislation, he said.

Open Gov wants the platform to be as accessible to people without a high school degree or who have been unemployed for a while as it is to those with a graduate degree who are online for their job all day and spend time on Reddit or Wikipedia, and is engaged in user testing to make that happen, he said.

The team has also gained eye-opening feedback from government staff, he recalled.

"The things we have taken for granted, from what data is available to how it's posted ... is not the same at the state level," he said.

One of the Open Gov Foundation's tasks will be to capture the entire record of Maryland's legislative data to establish a searchable archive so that at the very least, users can use Google Custom Search to look up information.

While everybody knows that "government websites don't work," he said, "they're giving us a problem we wouldn't have known about and wouldn't have put in our development work."

Funding for the Madison project fit with the Knight Foundation's focus on open government, which was also the theme of the recently concluded Knight News Challenge, said Michael Maness, Knight's VP of Journalism and Media Innovation. The idea of citizens and members of government collaborating on writing laws was attractive to Knight, as was the "notion of lowering the barrier for entry," he said. Knight also appreciated that the team was starting out in one local area, building on the success of Maryland, iterating and then growing from there, "as opposed to trying to do everything at once across all 50 states," he said. Maness said that Knight had been in talks with Kraft since he attended the FOCAS Forum last year at the Aspen Institute. What was also attractive to Knight, Maness said, "is the notion that it is something driving online participation and offline engagement, and marrying the two."