When we talk about providing a transparent and legible legislative process, the first step is identifying all the moving parts that contribute to the passing of law. In Washington, D.C., this means not just following the city council, but also following D.C.’s Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, or ANCs, the hyperlocal government entities that advise the city council on community issues. Although the District’s city government structure is uniquely granular, it serves as an excellent model for understanding what a complete legislative data framework should consist of.
This map distinguishes five levels of legislative web and broadcasting comprehension on a sliding scale from “Best” (including all recommended elements: video formatting of floor proceedings and committee hearings, archived, and broadcasted via a variety of mediums) to “Worst” (missing several of these recommended elements). For more info (or to watch!) see the NCSL's original roundup here.
Open legislative data is integral to a functioning legible participatory democracy. The legislative data canopy covers everything from information about who represents you to the nuts and bolts of the legislative process to final letter of the law, with each element carrying its own series of challenges and considerations when it comes to public access. Timely and archived legislative process data (i.e. bills, amendments, committee meetings, votes, and contextual information, such as: research reports, legislative journals and lobbying information) are crucial to supporting citizen participation and informed voting. Video documentation of the legislative process represents the barebones of open and accountable legislative process data -- passive recordings of events as they happen for prosperity and public inclusion -- and yet this information is still not comprehensively available in most U.S. states.
Today, Senator Jon Tester reintroduced The Public Online Information Act (POIA) a bill that would take already public government information out of file cabinets and put it online in user friendly formats.
In the Internet era, something cannot be considered public unless it is online. Unfortunately, some of the most important information held by government agencies is hard to access. POIA brings the federal government into the 21st century by enabling the public to access information quickly with just a few key strokes. It also brings together all three branches of government to determine the best ways to make information public.
POIA is common sense legislation that should be embraced by Members of Congress who support an efficient, transparent government.
Today, Senator Tester announced that once again he has introduced the Senate Campaign Disclosure Parity Act, (not yet online) a bill that would bring the Senate into the 21st Century by requiring senators and Senate candidates to electronically file their campaign finance reports with the Federal Election Commission.
The current filing system in place in the Senate would laughable if it weren’t so destructive to disclosure. Senate candidates file their quarterly campaign finance reports with the Secretary of the Senate, who prints them out on reams of paper to be delivered to the Federal Election Commission. The FEC then inputs the information contained in those reports into its computer databases. Transparency delayed is transparency denied. The Senate system is anathema to anyone who supports meaningful disclosure.
House candidates and presidential candidates, by contrast, have been electronically filing their campaign finance reports for over a decade—streamlining the process and saving taxpayer money. It is estimated that the duplicative paper filing system in place in the Senate costs up to a half a million dollars annually.
Versions of the Senate Campaign Disclosure Parity Act have been introduced with significant bipartisan support in multiple prior congresses. No Senator that we know of has ever publicly opposed the legislation. The only reason the bill is not law is because it has been used for partisan political squabbles. As the Senate struggles with massive challenges facing the country, from sequestration to guns to immigration, perhaps this year Senators can finally agree to enact a bill that no one can disagree with.
Wonder what the Open States team has been working on since we finished our initial goal of providing information for all 50 states back in March? As promised, we've been focusing on a new OpenStates.org and expanding our API to support full text search and we're finally ready to show you the results.
If you head over to OpenStates.org now you'll see that we've released a beta version of our site, currently available for 20 states. The remaining states are on their way later this year, but we wanted to make sure we took our time and did things right. As you explore the site you'll see all of the information we've been making available via our API. You'll also notice some enhancements made in the last few months like full-text search and enhanced support for legislator photos and contact addresses.
A core mission of the Sunlight Foundation is to enable citizen participation through technology and lower the bar to access government. Through our free tools we're constantly looking for ways to produce a more transparent and accountable government. Today, we're proud to introduce Scout, a tool that allows you to create customized keyword alerts to notify you whenever issues you care about are included in legislative or regulatory actions. This project embodies our goals as an organization: anyone can now freely get the immediate access to information that previously required significant organizational capacity in your state capital or Washington, D.C.
Start by entering a keyword or phrase you would like to get updates about. Scout then saves your subscriptions and sends notifications via email or text message whenever the subscribed issue or bill is talked about in Congress, mentioned in the Federal Register or comes up in state legislation. Through your profile you can create as many alerts as you'd like and group them by tags with the additional option to make them public for others to follow your issues. Users can also complement a Scout subscription by adding optional external RSS feeds, such as press releases from a member of Congress or an issue-based blog.
One of our inspirations to create Scout was to help track when new exemptions were proposed to the Freedom of Information Act. We created a collection of alerts on the topic and anyone interested in the issue can get alerts along with our staff.
Not only has Scout proved useful in tracking issues in Sunlight's policy advocacy, but we've already used it to help change proposed laws. We used our alert for the phrase "552 of title 5," created to track newly proposed exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act, to alert expert allies on Freedom of Information about an overly broad exemption. Very quick work among a variety of staff, especially OpentheGovernment.org, led to a sign-on letter, thoughtful feedback to Congressional staff, and eventually, a much better bill. We conceived of Scout with just this kind of work in mind. Our assumption is that timely, focused updates on specific issues can help public scrutiny lead to better policy. With the recent FDA bill's FOIA exemption, this was certainly the case.
Our rapid alert system is built on a foundation of strong data including our Capitol Words site that indexes the Congressional Record, legislative text and summary information from GPO and GovTrack, full text search of bills in all 50 states (a first) from our Open States project, notices on upcoming floor debates and regulatory filings included in the Federal Register. It's an ambitious undertaking, but we're excited to bring together all these important sources to provide you the most comprehensive alert system yet.
Visit Scout to watch a video about how the tool can work for you and please join us on Tuesday, June 26 for a webinar about Scout from 1 to 2 pm ET. The session will cover basic skills such as search terms and bill queries as well as advance functions such as tagging subscriptions, merging outside RSS feeds and curating search collections.
Our in-house developers at Sunlight Labs built Scout with generous support from the Stanton Foundation. Its code is open source and reusable and also provides a developer mode for advanced users. The site utilizes a number of Sunlight APIs including: Capitol Words, Real Time Congress and Open States. Read more about the data behind Scout here.
Scout isn’t even out of beta, but it’s already having a positive impact on lawmaking. You can see how in this email that Patrice McDermott of OpenTheGovernment.org sent to the FOI-L listserv yesterday:
This morning, the Senate approved an amendment from Senator Leahy that preserves FOIA in the FDA Safety and Innovation Act. The original language in the S.3187, Section 708 would have allowed the FDA to deny the public access to information relating to drugs obtained from a federal, state, local, or foreign government agency, if the agency has requested that the information be kept confidential. Senator Leahy’s amendment allows the FDA to obtain and protect drug inspection and investigation information from foreign governments under clear guidelines and with delimited protection time.
The original language was opposed in a letter by the openness and accountability community. Thanks to the hard work of Senator Leahy and his staff, and the collaboration of the HELP Committee leadership, the request from FDA for a carte blanche to withhold information from the public and Congress was denied. At the same time, the legitimate concerns regarding foreign governments were appropriately addressed.
Thanks to our colleagues in the openness and accountability community for your hard work on this.
Patrice’s colleague Amy Bennett sent a follow-up email that explained exactly how Scout was a part of this:
[W]e’d be remiss if we didn’t give credit to the Sunlight Foundation’s latest legislative language tool, Scout (http://scout.sunlightfoundation.com/), for alerting us to the existence of the original provision. You can use the tool to set up email alerts for key phrases or follow a particular bill. It covers Congress, regulations across the whole executive branch, and legislation in all 50 states.
We use Scout to get updates anytime Congress is considering expanding what can be withheld under the federal FOIA by setting up an alert that searches bills in Congress for the term “552 (b)” (thanks to a reform written into law last year, all new b3 statutes must cite FOIA – USC 552).
Obviously, an email alert can only go so far. It took the work of Patrice and Amy, like-minded organizations like Public Citizen, and members of Sen. Leahy’s staff to catch this problematic provision and correct it.
But that good work was made possible by the tip-off that Scout provided. It’s a great example of technology lowering barriers to participation in the democratic process, which ultimately results in better governance — and that idea is exactly why Sunlight exists.
I've put up a dataset on Github that maps popular search terms to bills in Congress. It's a simple, 5-column CSV designed to help people create better search engines that take in user input to search for bills. The idea is that this will be useful to, and get contributions from, the community of people out there working with legislation and building tools around them.
It's humble - I started it out with a mere 7 rows, assigning the keywords "Obamacare", "SOPA", "PIPA", and "PPACA" to the appropriate bills. There are certainly more good candidates than that, so please contribute via pull request, or if you don't know how to do that, open an issue and talk about it with words.
An expansion of our recent analysis of Stand Your Ground laws confirms that an additional five states, and perhaps more, have passed legal language strikingly similar to the Florida law that has gained national attention in the wake of Trayvon Martin's death. In addition to the previously identified states, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, Utah, and Illinois passed laws that appear to share substantial overlap with the legislation enacted in Florida.
Sunlight's initial analysis demonstrated that at least ten states had passed bills sharing substantial overlapping text with the Florida measure. However, our report was limited by the availability of legislative text, and we intentionally confined its scope to the text of bills that were enacted after the Florida law’s passage in 2005.
With research assistance from the Legal Community Against Violence, we expanded our analysis to include a wider collection of state-level self-defense laws, as well as statutory text in cases where original legislative language could not be obtained. As a result, we can now confirm that measures on the books in at least 15 states share meaningful amounts of overlapping language with the Florida law — one such example is the phrase “a person does not have a duty to retreat” — implying connections related to these laws' provenance and spread. This analytic finding is consistent with reports that the Florida law was adopted and promoted to other states by the American Legislative Exchange Council and the National Rifle Association.
Our analysis also hints at some of the origins of the Florida law. Illinois and Utah's measures represent earlier "Castle Doctrines." But these bills lacked some of the provisions of the Florida measure that are considered to be most problematic, such as the presumption of innocence for those using deadly force. And it was the Florida bill that appears to have been used as a template by most states that have since adopted "Stand Your Ground" laws.
Although our expanded analysis examined legislative or statutory language from 45 states, in some cases data availability remains a limiting factor. In others, laws may be substantially similar or share a common origin but lack overlapping language. Our analysis is limited to overlapping, identical text (we ignored matching text that appeared to be a product of short or frequently-used legal boilerplate). It is important to note that the 15 matches we located represent a lower bound; the total number of states that have adopted bills inspired by Florida’s may well be higher.
Sunlight's work relies on software called SuperFastMatch. Created by the Media Standards Trust and supported by a grant from Sunlight, SFM allows for the identification of overlap between text documents at large scales and high speeds. You can examine the connections between the "Stand Your Ground" measures we have collected for yourself by visiting our research instance of SFM. Click the "Documents" tab to begin exploring the different self-defense-related measures we examined and their degree of overlap with those of other states.
Making good on part of the House of Representative's commitment to increase congressional transparency, today the House Clerk's office launched http://docs.house.gov/, a one stop website where the public can access all House bills, amendments, resolutions for floor consideration, and conference reports in XML, as well as information on floor proceedings and more. Information will ultimately be published online in real time and archived for perpetuity.
The Clerk is hosting the site, and the information will primarily come from the leadership, the Committee on House Administration, the Rules Committee, and the Clerk's office. The project has been driven by House Republican leaders as part of an push for transparency. Important milestones include the adoption of the new House Rules in January 2011 that gave the Committee on House Administration the power to establish standards for publishing documents online, an April 2011 letter from the Speaker and Majority Leader to the Clerk calling for better public access to House information, a Committee on House Administration hearing in June 2011 on modernizing information delivery in the House, a December 2011 public meeting on public access to congressional information, and finally the late December adoption of online publication standards.
Today's effort focuses on House documents, but there is a similar series of requirements for committee and other documents that will be addressed as the Clerk's site is further built out. Three things strike me as particularly important for what has happened today
First, the House made a commitment to do something concrete -- publish documents online in machine-friendly formats by January 2012-- and they did that. All too often, transparency promises fall by the wayside or are beaten back by bureaucracy. This is a commitment made, and one that is being kept. (We will keep a close eye on things, just in case.)
Second, the ongoing process of releasing documents online, in real-time, and in machine-readable manner is a tremendous sea change from the slow and ponderous paper publications that are often late, fairly difficult to use, and unfriendly to computers. PDFs, by themselves, are simply insufficient for transparency purposes, and have been for a very long time, and it's important that we're moving towards making information available in such as a way as to maximize its usefulness.
Third, the House is forging ahead the best it can. It would be ideal to have the Senate joining the House in this effort, or have legislative support agencies taking the initiative, but all too often these joint efforts result in nothing happening. It's important for everyone to make the best progress they can, and that's what's happening here.
It will be fun to see when the next shoe drops.