Personal Democracy Plus Our premium content network. LEARN MORE You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

House Publishes U.S. Code in XML

BY Miranda Neubauer | Tuesday, July 30 2013

The House of Representatives is now making the United States Code available for download in XML format, Speaker John Boehner's office announced today.

Transparency advocates like Joshua Tauberer, creator of Govtrack, welcomed the move, but are still waiting on the publication of legislative data in bulk format.

The Speaker's press release notes that the data is compiled, updated and published by the Office of Law Revision Counsel and is available for download as individual titles or in bulk.

The press release points out that the "House created the Legislative Branch Bulk Data Task Force in 2012 to expedite the process of providing bulk access to legislative information and to increase transparency for the American people."

"[The U.S. Code data] is really good example of this kind of project done right," Tauberer said. "The documentation is very comprehensive and detailed and really one of the best examples of documentation for a government XML standard that I've ever seen. The data is structured in a coherent, natural way."

He said that the new format would make it easier as a developer to process the hierarchy of the Code and access specific sections or elements of it in context, compared with what is currently possible through an HTML format.

The new tool will make it possible for Govtrack to offer a service allowing users to track elements of the Code and receive an alert any time a bill mentions a specific section, he said.

He noted that that Sunlight Foundation's Scout tool functions in a similar way, but that the new data will make such a tool easier to maintain and allow for comprehensive results. Govtrack had had a similar function up until 2011, he said, when he discontinued it because it was too hard to keep it up-to-date.

But for Tauberer, "the big elephant in the room" is the unavailability of legislative data. Currently, Govtrack and other transparency groups scrape such data from the Library of Congress' Thomas platform, a process that leads to inaccuracies and is hard to maintain. What is currently available in bulk format is the text of bills, he emphasized, but not their legislative status, meaning it isn't easy to create a spreadsheet of all bills passed or find out how many bills were passed by one chamber and not the other.

Tauberer suggested that the new XML release was the result of a larger internal House modernization project, even though it is being billed as a transparency initiative.

Citing previous advocacy efforts and discussions about what the Bulk Data Task Force was focused on, he said that while the work on XML was positive, "that's not the reason the task force was created," and warned against "losing sight" of the legislative data priority.

In September, on the occasion of the launch of Congress.gov, a Library of Congress spokesperson told techPresident that Congress had "not requested that data be provided in that manner."

In August, a report co-authored by Tauberer, the Sunlight Foundation and others welcomed the House Leadership's commitment to bulk data and outlined a path towards implementation.

FierceGovernmentIt reported on July 22 that a December 31 report by the task force was recently made available as part of the Legislative Branch appropriations bill.

"Consistent with the pledge by House Leaders, the Task Force recommends that it be a priority for Legislative Branch agencies to publish legislative information in XML and provide bulk access to that data; that the XML Working Group develop and maintain standards to ensure compatibility and interoperability of all machine-readable data published by the Legislative Branch, and that the Task Force be extended to the 113th Congress to continue to coordinate, initiate and track transparency-related projects," the report's executive summary reads.

News Briefs

RSS Feed thursday >

NYC Open Data Advocates Focus on Quality And Value Over Quantity

The New York City Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications plans to publish more than double the amount of datasets this year than it published to the portal last year, new Commissioner Anne Roest wrote last week in an annual report mandated by the city's open data law, with 135 datasets scheduled to be released this year, and almost 100 more to come in 2015. But as preparations are underway for City Council open data oversight hearings in the fall, what matters more to advocates than the absolute number of the datasets is their quality. GO

Civic Tech and Engagement: Announcing a New Series on What Makes it "Thick"

Announcing a new series of feature articles that we will be publishing over the next several months, thanks to the support of the Rita Allen Foundation. Our focus is on digitally-enabled civic engagement, and in particular, how and under what conditions "thick" digital civic engagement occurs. What we're after is answers to this question: When does a tech tool or platform enable actual people to make ongoing and significant contributions to each other, to a place or cause, at a scale that produces demonstrable change? GO

More