Yesterday, Rep. Bill Foster introduced a bill that would improve public access to legislative information. Specifically, H.R. 6289 calls for:
- Bulk access to THOMAS legislative summary and status data,
- The creation of an advisory committee that would issue recommendations on improving services provided by THOMAS, and
- The Library of Congress to work towards adding bulk access to the full text of legislation.
This may not seem like a big deal, but it is. In the last year, one in five adult Internet users downloaded or read legislation, according to Pew’s 2010 “Government Online” report. And yet THOMAS, the official public portal to congressional information, has a dated web interface that often obscures its rich contents.
Although there are ongoing efforts to improve THOMAS, its limitations have spurred the private and non-profit sectors to create alternative legislative data interfaces, like GovTrack.us and OpenCongress.org. Unfortunately, their innovative designs are needlessly limited by unreliable access to information.
Public “bulk access” to THOMAS data allows users to download large amounts of information at one time. Technology innovators can mix the reliable information stored in THOMAS with flexible interfaces to address unmet needs, solve new problems, and create more ways for people to make use of legislative data. Currently, third parties write programs that extract human-readable information from THOMAS in a time-consuming and error-prone process known as “scraping.”
In 2009, Congress directed the Library of Congress, the Congressional Research Service, the Government Printing Office, and other appropriate entities “to prepare a report on the feasibility of providing advanced search capabilities” via “more direct methods such as bulk data downloads.” So far, I am unaware of the release of any such report. Rep. Foster’s pushes the matter forward by requiring bulk access to certain types of THOMAS data and calling for all legislative information to ultimately become available for bulk download. (The legislation cited our 2007 Open House Project Report, which called for bulk access to all legislative data.)
The bill takes an additional step by bringing the public further into the conversation about improving THOMAS’s functionality. In the last year or so, the folks who run THOMAS have made serious efforts to get feedback from the public about improving THOMAS, including creating a blog and collecting user feedback. The creation of an advisory committee would formalize the process and ensure that all relevant parties keep talking about how to improve THOMAS. It would also require them to issue regular progress reports.
The legislation is an important step forward and we hope that it receives prompt consideration when Congress returns from recess. In the meantime, the Library of Congress, Government Printing Office, and other relevant parties should act even in Congress's absence. The way forward is clear.