GovTrack.us is a perfect choice to be our first review as an Insanely Useful Website. GovTrack is one of the original web 2.0 type sources for government information: both an excellent example of a new model of political information distribution, and a compelling story of Web-programming genius expressed as an ambitious civic undertaking.
Josh Tauberer, Govtrack’s creator and proprietor, has gone far beyond building a simple tool to help track congressional proceedings; Josh’s creation has become a fundamental fixture in terms of both government information and structured data, a result of his extensive knowledge of both advanced linguistics, and computer programming. Josh’s willingness to volunteer his expertise also led to him helping to form and author the recommendations of the Open House Project, a separate Sunlight project.
Here’s Josh Tauberer briefly telling the story of Govtrack: (click below to play)
GovTrack’s user oriented design and creative combinations of different data sources have garnered praise from notable sources, including Peggy Garvin, The New York Times, and The Washington Post, and also help make GovTrack useful for a variety of different users.
There’s a lot more to this review; click below to keep reading…
Key to becoming an Insanely Useful Site is the ease of access to the site’s data for an amateur seeker of political information — or in Internet speak, a noob. GovTrack provides numerous tools to help amateurs find information that is relevant to their immediate interests in Congress, whether that be electoral (should I vote for my current congressperson?) or because of a specific interest in a particular bill. Usually the point of entry to government information for an amateur is a desire to learn about who represents them.
So, say I have a member of Congress, which, in reality, I don’t (D.C.), and let’s say I live in Newton, Massachusetts, which means that Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) is my congressman. But let’s pretend that I don’t know that. When I get to the home page of GovTrack I notice in the upper left hand corner that I can search for my representative. If I don’t know his/her last name I can click to a "zoomable district map". The "zoomable district map" — it takes a second to load — is a Google mash-up map with every Congressional district visible and clickable. I can zoom into Massachusetts and see that Newton is within the boundaries of the 4th CD of Massachusetts and therefore I am represented by Rep. Frank.
Now that I’ve found my Representative I can click through to their individual page. GovTrack’s individual member pages are incredibly detailed and use supplemental information often not found on member’s official Web sites or easily accessible through the THOMAS Web site. Each individual page contains a list of recent votes, a link to past votes, sponsored and cosponsored bills, speeches on the floor of the House, committee membership, and links to campaign contributions and video clips. For someone simply searching for a way to easily track their member of Congress, GovTrack provides RSS feeds of all information related to your representative and the ability to receive e-mail alerts on your member of Congress’ activity.
If you want to go deeper into the Congressional process you can follow the committees on which your member of Congress sits. For this example, Barney Frank is chairman of the House Financial Services Committee. The committee’s page holds similar information about the committee that is available on member pages. Each committee page provides a list of members on the committee with pictures, all bills before the committee, all bills that have been enacted into law and bills that have not been enacted. RSS feeds and e-mail updates are also available for the committee. Unfortunately, quite a good deal of committee information is simply not released to the public either at all (committee votes) or in a timely fashion (committee transcripts), so GovTrack is not able to track these important pieces of committee data.
The best part about these member and committee pages is the intuitive design of each one and the ease of understanding the information. The data is not cluttered and confusing, as THOMAS often can be, and the information is presented in a thoughtful way, so that the amateur can find the information they need without wading through piles of irrelevant and aggravating information or doing multiple unsuccessful searches.
While GovTrack’s greatest asset is its accessible presentation of information and ease of use, the expert and political professional will find numerous features useful that the amateur may not be seeking.
The bill pages are an excellent example of GovTrack’s accessible presentation directed at expert users. For example, GovTrack presents bills with highlighted text to show which changes have been made as the bill makes its way through Congress. The recent bill for relief after the bridge collapse in Minneapolis is a perfect example. As you can see the colors red, yellow, and blue respectively denote removed text, changed text, and inserted text into the bill. GovTrack also provides all previous versions of the bill with highlighted text so you can track changes from introduction to passage. This allows any researcher or political expert to immediately look at a bill that they are following and know what was changed without having to spend fifteen minutes or an hour parsing the text.
Another great feature of GovTrack for researchers is the ability to search votes all the way back to 1993. If you are trying to compile or compare information on particular members of Congress and their voting records, GovTrack is clearly the place to do your research.
A favorite feature is the ability to search by subject terms. While, unfortunately, you can’t add your own, there are a large number of subject terms to search by. Tracked events alerts are available for each subject term and are very useful for a busy researcher or blogger who needs immediate updates on bills in their issue area of choice.
Always important to anyone doing political work professionally is the ability to check primary sources. Each bill page provides a link to the original text on THOMAS if you need to check the information presented on GovTrack to that provided by the Library of Congress. (For example, just this morning we used GovTrack to find S.1, followed the link to THOMAS, and used THOMAS to find a good .pdf version for printing.)
The massive number of RSS feeds on vote, member, and bill information is also a great asset of GovTrack. Finally, GovTrack provides an RSS feed on all upcoming committee hearings. This is an excellent feature if you need to keep up on what’s happening on the Hill in coming weeks.
Web Developers and Tech Enthusiasts
For developers and tech enthusiasts, GovTrack.us is a vast experiment in the political application of structured information. By converting the THOMAS versions of bills into RDF and XML, the data gains new uses, more easily mixed with other data sources. For example, OpenCongress.org takes GovTrack’s bill data and combines it with news feeds and blog coverage from technorati to provide further cultural context for legislative action. Whereabill.org uses GovTrack data to physically locate the bill in the Capitol complex, and highlight it on a google map.
APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) are the techincal mechanism by which database proprietors permit other servers to access their information. A well known example would probably be google maps. If you’ve ever used a "store locator" when shopping, and had the location appear in a google map, then the site where you entered the search also sent a query to the google maps database, and then combined your entry with the results from the google maps result.
GovTrack accesses APIs to function, and also creates APIs to empower other sites to build on the data sets that Josh is creating. For example, the zoomable district maps page is built on an API, and is then available as a new API for others to use.
Political and legislative information are becoming more useful as they become both more standardized, and also more decentralized (and easily distributed). These developments only happen when new data standards are developed and utilized, and the information released in its most useful form, without copyright restriction. GovTrack is a huge leap in that direction, implementing well conceived data standards and empowering web designers to integrate congressional data into their projects.
Written by John Wonderlich and Paul Blumenthal