Open States: Present and Future


Open States map @ 25I’m pleased to say that Caitlin and James have just finished giving our Open States project a lovely new design. Not only is the site now much more pleasing to look at, it’s much easier to see the great progress that’s being made by James, Mike and our volunteer contributors. In addition to the five states that are live (and supported by OpenGovernment), there are already another twelve states with “experimental” status. Don’t let the scare-quotes scare you, though: while we wouldn’t yet recommend building your air traffic control system or pacemaker firmware in such a way that it’s dependent on our API coverage of Alaska, the scrapers from the experimental states are well on their way to being declared complete. Developers should confident about building around this data — rest assured that it’ll be declared “ready” soon enough.

Of course, we hope that developers in our community will also consider becoming involved in the project directly — there’s plenty of work to be done.

And it’s genuinely important work. State legislatures are where vital decisions are made about civil rights, transportation, education, taxes, land use, gun regulation, and a host of other issues. Far too often, these issues don’t get the attention they deserve. It’s a simple question of scale: there are a lot more resources available at the federal level for both lawmakers and journalists. That means state governance both requires more transparency and tends to get less of it. We think technology can help make the situation better — that’s what Open States is all about.

There are some interesting opportunities for cross-state work, too. Polisci geeks will probably appreciate the comparative politics opportunities that a common data model and API will allow (Gabriel Florit’s already been creating some cool visualization experiments that build on our data). But there are also less academic applications for this information. Consider these two stories that NPR published last fall. They got a bit lost in the pre-election shuffle, but they made a big impression on me.

The gist of it is this: Arizona’s controversial immigration law didn’t happen by magic. One of the special interests fighting for it was the private prison lobby — as you might imagine, having more prisoners means more business for them, and they saw increased enforcement of immigration laws as a growth opportunity. So, via an intermediary organization that specializes in this sort of thing, they conducted a legislator “education” campaign, wining and dining lawmakers and sending them home with prewritten model legislation.

All of this is perfectly legal. And, depending on your opinion about immigration, you might even approve of the policy outcome it produced. But it’s hard to imagine anyone being okay with the shadowy role that commercial interests appear to have played in this legislative process. If we’d been able to spot the provenance of the legislation earlier, would journalists and organizers have been able to give the people of Arizona a more complete understanding of what was going on? I think so — I hope so. That’s the kind of use that Open States should make possible, and the one I’m most excited about.