In the near future, Congress is expected to release a major upgrade to its aging legislative information website THOMAS. The long-overdue update is part of a much larger effort to “enhance the effectiveness of mission-critical systems,” a response to significant public and internal pressure to improve congressional efficiency and transparency. The launch of “THOMAS Beta” is the first step towards developing what the Library of Congress describes as a completely “modern legislative information system” that will replace THOMAS and Congress’ more sophisticated internal legislative tracking website “LIS” in FY 2014. Both THOMAS and LIS will stay online alongside the beta website for several years.
While THOMAS Beta has been shown to stakeholders inside Congress, as far as I am aware there has been no formal engagement process with the public to identify specifications, discuss wireframes, or generally make sure the site meets the public’s needs. It is expected that such conversations will occur after the launch as the site is built out. My understanding is that the majority of the work on THOMAS Beta thus far has been to modernize the underlying information architecture, with many of the new bells and whistles and apps to be rolled out over time.
Two years ago, the Sunlight Foundation gathered ideas from the community for upgrading THOMAS, and in July 2010 we highlighted three additional ideas, but the primary recommendation continues to be requiring all of the underlying information behind THOMAS to be made available to the public “in bulk.” In other words, all of the legislative information behind THOMAS and LIS should be made available in a way that’s easy for machines to understand so that developers can more easy and reliably build tools like OpenCongress, GovTrack, the Congress Android App, and Scout that re-use information in clever new ways.
The House leadership has endorsed the idea of bulk access and established a nascent bulk data task force, but not everyone inside Congress is fully on board with the effort. From an external perspective, we have requested that public stakeholders be included on the bulk data task force, which is being coordinated by the House Clerk’s office. Along similar lines, for several years we and others have asked the Library of Congress to form an advisory group on THOMAS (as it is responsible for overseeing THOMAS), and we hope the impending launch of THOMAS Beta will make this a reality.
It’s important to understand the context in which the THOMAS Beta rolls out. In the last year, the House of Representatives released an innovative legislative information portal, docs.house.gov, which provides bulk access to House data in a way that is more timely than THOMAS, and will soon provide materials from House committees in addition to documents concerning floor proceedings. The House also held three conferences on legislative transparency and created the bulk data task force. In addition, more than 85 organizations will release a declaration on parliamentary openness in Rome this Saturday at the World e-Parliament Conference that endorses providing information in open and structured formats. And the free, open-source parliamentary information system-in-a-box Bungeni is continuing to gain steam around the world.
We are eagerly looking forward to the launch of THOMAS Beta, and will pay particularly close attention to whether the Library of Congress, which has general responsibility for the project, has built a system that uses modern techniques — such as bulk access and APIs — to make information available to the public.