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House Convenes Second Public Meeting on Legislative Bulk Data

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On January 30th, the House of Representatives held a public meeting on its efforts to release more legislative information to the public in ways that facilitate its reuse. This was the second meeting hosted by the Bulk Data Task Force where members of the public were included; it began privately meeting in September 2012. (Sunlight and others made a presentation at a meeting, in October, on providing bulk access to legislative data.) This public meeting, organized by the Clerk's office, is a welcome manifestation of the consensus of political leaders of both parties in the House that now is the time to push Congress' legislative information sharing technology into the 21st century. In other words, it's time to open up Congress.

The meeting featured three presentations on ongoing initiatives, allowed for robust Q&A, and highlighted improvements expected to be rolled out of the next few months. In addition, the House recorded the presentations and has made the video available to the public. The ongoing initiatives are the release of bill text bulk data by GPO, the addition of committee information for docs.house.gov, and the release on floor summary bulk data. It's expected that these public meetings will continue at least as frequently as once per quarter, or more often when prompted by new releases of information.

As part of the introductory remarks, the House's Deputy Clerk explained that a report had been generated by the Task Force at the end of the 112th Congress on bulk access to legislative data and was submitted to the House Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee. It's likely that the report's recommendations will become public as part of the committee's hearings on the FY 2014 Appropriations Bill, at which time the public should have an opportunity to comment.

PRESENTATIONS

Bill Text Bulk Data

Several senior GPO staff  discussed the release of bill text bulk data by GPO, which is available here. Particularly noteworthy (and laudatory) is that the authentication model for the data mirrors that of the Federal Register. The User's Guide, released by GPO, says:

We cannot vouch for the authenticity of data that is not under GPO’s control. GPO is providing free access to House bill data via XML for display in various applications and mashups outside the FDsys domain. GPO does not endorse third party applications, and does not evaluate how our original legal content is displayed on other sites. Consumers should form their own conclusions as to whether the downloaded data can be relied upon within an application or mash-up. An application may link to the official House bill files on FDsys to provide users with additional assurance. The authenticated digitally-signed PDF is available on FDsys at http://www.fdsys.gov.

I should also mention the praiseworthy inclusion of a statement disclaiming any restrictions on use of the information. Unfortunately, the release of bill information does not include Senate bills, even though this exact information has already been made available in other ways through GPO, because the Senate has not granted permission.

Committee Information on Docs.House.Gov

A senior technologist in the Clerk's office and the CTO for the Committee on House Administration gave a presentation on the significant upgrade to docs.house.gov, which we've discussed before. In summary, the House of Representatives has added to its already impressive portal of floor legislative information by creating a single place for committees to post information about legislative proceedings. This includes committee meeting notices, hearing lists, submitted testimony, votes, and so on. The Committee Repository is particularly commendable because it helps ensure institutional memory -- even as committees change hands -- by placing valuable information into the safekeeping of the Clerk's office. It also is releasing information in the structured data format XML that allows computers to easily understand and process.

Docs.house.gov isn't perfect... at least not yet. For the first quarter, committee votes will only be posted as PDFs, although the Clerk is working with GPO to find a way to standardize committee vote information. Pilot committees may move to an open, structured data format in the second quarter of this year. Video of meetings that are hosted by the Library of Congress will soon be included. (Correction: meeting notices that are hosted by docs.house.gov and video on the LOC's website will be tagged with the same unique ID, and will make use of the same official title, thereby facilitating the connection of meeting to video of the proceedings.) Unfortunately, the proceedings of Joint Committees (which ironically includes the committees responsible for GPO and LOC) will not be included in docs.house.gov, and likely are waiting for the consent of the Senate.

The goal is to ensure that docs.house.gov becomes a regular part of the way committees perform their business, which will ensure that it is widely used. All committees have been trained to use docs.house.gov, but it's likely that not all committees are currently using it, or using it perfectly. It likely will take monitoring from the public to verify the quality of the data in the Committee Repository, and people should look at both the committee's website and docs.house.gov for upcoming meeting information while the transition takes place.

A question was raised about finding a way to track unnumbered bills (i.e. pre-introduction legislation) that is released as part of committee or other proceedings. Currently, pre-introduction bills are often identified as "H.R. ___", which is very difficult to track. The Clerk's office indicated that it would look to find a way to make it easier to connect pre-introduction legislation with the bill names they ultimately acquire.

House Floor Activities

The Clerk's Office has also released bulk downloads for House Floor Activities. These new datasets allow users to see what's happened on the floor, moment by moment. The bulk data file is updated daily to ensure accuracy and timeliness.

As a side note, the Clerk's office also indicated that it is updating data on Members of Congress to indicate the date and time they were sworn in, and if they resigned, when that took place. Comments and suggestions are encouraged to be sent to xml-comments(at)mail.house.gov.

PROJECTS IN PROGRESS

There are several major projects in progress.

  • The House is working on releasing bill summary information in bulk. This is not expected to be implemented for several months and requires consultation with a number of working groups.

  • The Office of Law Revision Counsel (which we've written about before) and the House Legislative Counsel is working on a code modernization project (here's the tender information) that will release the US Code as XML. This incredibly useful project is expected to be implemented by the middle of the summer.

  • In the fairly near future, the House may host a "data challenge" where developers are encouraged to build new tools using legislative information. It may be focused on making use of the international legislative information standard Akoma Ntoso.

  • The House is in the early stages of considering whether to create a data dashboard to assist the public (especially programmers) in finding legislative data items. It may contain an index that explains where things are in plain English. The House is seeking additional feedback on these ideas.

  • The House launched history.house.gov, a collaborative project between the Office of the Historian and the Clerk to help serve as the institution's memory and a resource of House information.

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

It's clear that the House is moving forward on a number of fronts. With the upcoming hearings by the Appropriations Committee on the bulk data task force, regular public meetings as part of a real public engagement strategy, a serious of continuous improvements to these offerings, we believe that serious progress is being made.

It remains to be seen to what extent the Senate will endorse these efforts. Will it permit joint committees to be included on docs.house.gov? Will it ask to include Senate data on docs.house.gov (perhaps docs.congress.gov) or create its own docs.senate.gov? Will it allow Senate Bills to be available from GPO for bulk download? Will it hold public discussions (whether as part of Senate Rules or the Senate Appropriations Committee) on these issues? And, the key question for many of us, will it allow the information contained in THOMAS to be made available to the public in bulk, which has been our foremost request all along?

From an institutional perspective, the House-coordinated Bulk Data Task Force has been successful beyond its purpose of increasing legislative transparency. Its meetings have allowed many of the institutional components responsible for administering, producing, tracking, and publishing information to have conversations on an ongoing basis  on a broad range of issues that heretofore have occurred in a less systematic and comprehensive way. The Task Force regularly has representatives from leadership, committees, legislative support offices, and legislative branch agencies. It has welcomed Senate staffers, although there remains an opportunity for the Senate to deepen and broaden its participation.

All in all, the Legislative Bulk Data Task Force is moving the ball forward. We are looking forward to seeing the progress that will be made in the upcoming weeks and months.