Bulk Data From Congress?

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Another of the Open House Project report recommendations is slowly becoming reality.

The omnibus appropriations report (HR 1105) contains language that specifically addresses access to legislative data:

Public Access to Legislative Data – There is support for enhancing public access to legislative documents, bill status, summary information, and other legislative data through more direct methods such as bulk data downloads and other means of no-charge digital access to legislative databases. The Library of Congress, Congressional Research Service, and Government Printing Office and the appropriate entities of the House of Representatives are directed to prepare a report on the feasibility of providing advanced search capabilities. This report is to be provided to the Committees on Appropriations of the House and Senate within 120 days of the release of Legislative Information System 2.0.

While requiring a report may seem to be a long way from actual, say, FTP access to the data that runs THOMAS, this is actually a significant move.  As Carl Malamud points out, on an O’Reilly Radar post, “The language only requires a report, but a report to an Appropriations subcommittee means a whole bunch, because if they don’t like your report, you don’t get money.”

We’ve been advocating for bulk or programmatic access to legislative data for some time, and the May 2007 Open House Project report features a chapter specifically about data from the Library of Congress.  Since Josh Tauberer was the primary contributor to that chapter, I’m happy to see him weigh in on Congress’s latest: (via Mother Jones blog)

Tauberer expects that the availability of additional and easier-to-use congressional data will spur innovation. “You can expect to see other sites spring up doing new and interesting things with the information.” He anticipates charts, graphs, and maps that represent congressional goings-on visually—”ways of visualizing the congressional process that we couldn’t yet imagine.”

Creative visualizations, advanced analysis, reliable re-publishing — while these each are rather clear public goods, they aren’t the easiest things to sell to Members of Congress.  I’m grateful to have worked closely with Rep. Honda’s staff, this large step toward a new public relationship to Congress.  Here’s what Rep. Honda had to say, as quoted on Wired:

“In our web 2.0 world, we can empower the public by providing them with raw data that they can remix and reuse in new and innovative ways,” says Honda, who is vice chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch. “With these tools, the public can collaborate on projects that can help legislators to create better policies to address the pressing challenges facing our nation.”

Having a Member on the Leg Branch Approps subcommittee articulating the benefits of data access will help the public to become empowered, as he describes, much more quickly, and it must be addictive — Rob Pierson, Honda’s Online Communications Director (who I’ve often worked closely with) is even requesting feedback on the proposals from readers at Wired.

The bill should be considered shortly in the Senate.

Update: To be clear, Rep. Honda inserted the provision in the report.

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