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U.S. House of Reps Moves to Bake In Stuctured Data

BY Nancy Scola | Friday, April 29 2011

Photo credit: Architect of the Capitol

In a letter released this morning, the House Republican leadership took another step towards institutionalizing openness right into the U.S. House of Representatives, asking the Clerk of the House to help develop a standardized legislative data format to be used by the full House. (The full letter is down below.)

"The Rules of the House, adopted on the opening day of this Congress, directed the Committee on House Administration to establish and maintain electronic data standards for the House and its committees," reads the letter that Speaker John Boehner and Majority Eric Cantor sent to Clerk of the House Karen Haas. "We have asked that this standard be developed in conjunction with your office for the purpose of transitioning the House to more open data formats, such as XML."

This upgrade to the inner workings of the House has actually been in the works for years. The 2007 founding report of the Open House Project, part of the Sunlight Foundation, called for the House to move to "a structured, non-proprietary format" for legislation. (Full disclosure: I believe somewhere on the Internet I might be listed as an advisor on that original OHP report, but I didn't contribute much at all to it.) Getting the House to do its day-to-day work in a consistent way from committee to committee and office to office helps to make it easier for the public to plug into that work. That's why places like OpenCongress have long been calling for the Hill to embrace structured data.

Sunlight's John Wonderlich wrote this morning that "a joint letter from the Speaker and Majority Leader is a real commitment to data release, and means that the House is going to be adjusting how it shares legislative information online."*

If the House leadership settles on one format, goes the thinking, individual House offices are empowered to contribute to the openness of the body. "We believe that this legislative data, using standardized machine-readable formats, should be publicly available on House websites," reads the letter from the GOP leadership to the clerk. "The Clerk’s office should work to ensure the consistent public availability and utility of the House’s legislative data." In that Open House Project report, the group pointed an example of a legislative body doing good work in serving up structured legislative data: the Illinois General Assembly legislative FTP site.

We don't yet have too many details on how House intends to build out their structured data system, but a Cantor office rep says this morning that the policy will be fleshed out in the Committee on House Administration in the next few weeks. Again, the full letter is after the jump.

*Note: Our Andrew Rasiej and Micah Sifry are senior advisors to the Sunlight Foundation.

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