Does information about legislation belong to Congress or to the American people? This basic question is at the heart of a fight over how Congress releases data about what it does. Americans increasingly use the Internet to make sense of the world around them, and open data opens up Congress in a way that’s never been possible before.
In the pre-YouTube pre-iPhone pre-Amazon days, Congress built a website — THOMAS — to let citizens follow legislation from home. THOMAS was revolutionary … in 1995. But the Internet continued to develop, becoming more sophisticated and interactive, allowing web developers to easily share the data behind their websites with others. It’s why we can book flights on Travelocity, check the weather on our phones, and follow legislation on OpenCongress and GovTrack.
Unlike Travelocity and the National Weather Service, Congress doesn’t share the data behind THOMAS with anyone. Instead, web developers must reverse-engineer the website to transmute its pages into usable data, like assembling a puzzle from thousands of ragged pieces without a picture on the box as a guide. This slow, difficult, and time-consuming process isn’t perfect, but it’s responsible for how most Americans follow what’s happening in Congress.
The better approach is for Congress to publish the data behind THOMAS. Government regularly does this elsewhere, and “bulk data” is responsible for clever new uses of information developed by citizens, journalists, and even the government itself.
In upcoming days, the House is likely to pass legislative language that pays lip service to releasing THOMAS data while putting the idea in a deep freeze. This would be a disaster. But it’s not too late. Tell your representative that you want Congress to publish legislative data now.
PS. For more information and the latest developments, go here.