When will Open Legislative Data come to your town?


Last September, after observing an increased velocity in the number of formal open data policies being created around the country, we posed the question: “When will open data come to your town?” Just eight months later, 13 additional open data policies have been established, almost doubling what the number was then. I believe we’ll see this trend continue throughout the year and see more and stronger open data laws passed (with help from our open data policy guidelines, and the open government community), but tracking these laws at the local level is not easy, so now we pose a follow up question: When will open legislative data come to your town?

Efforts to open legislative data are happening all over the country at all levels of government: from the the /unitedstates project at the federal level, to the growing popularity of Sunlight’s Open States tool (the culmination of community work that started 5 years ago with the fifty-states project). At the local level, the gathering, structuring and opening of data relevant to lawmaking — such as representative information and information on meetings, ordinances and votes — has been conducted by Civic Agency, Open North and civic hackers around the country, which have created tools like Democracy Map, Represent and Councilmatic instances in Chicago and Philadelphia. The Sunlight Foundation, too, has built off of its Open States work to create an Open Civic Data Schema for bills, events, and votes and adopted people and organization schemas that are compatible with the Popolo format. These formats are compatible with all levels of government and with identifiers that power Google’s Civic Information API.

Collecting, structuring and opening local legislative data makes it possible to build tools like Open States and OpenCongress for your hometown, integrate your local legislative information into any app, and compare your local legislation to other jurisdictions. Tools created with open legislative data can help advocacy organizations, attorneys, businesses, community members, journalists and government officials themselves keep track of the lawmaking process. Apps for when the next bus will come are great, but imagine apps that alert you when legislation you’d be interested in is being heard?

Codified law is getting opened up too, making it easier to access law when and how you need it. The OpenGov Foundation has been working hard to redeploy OpenGov Champion Waldo Jaquith’s State Decoded work across the country as AmericaDecoded, forming inspiring partnerships (see the AmLegal Decoder) and complementary tools like Madison, a platform where community members participate directly with the lawmaking process. Civic hackers in D.C. have worked to create DCCode.org, amongst other projects. While Public.Resource.org continues years of work to get laws online with Yes We Scan’s Summer of Code working to get D.C., Georgia, Idaho and Mississippi‘s annotated code online in bulk for free.

Coalitions of folks interested in democracy tools, legal informatics and upgrading the legal practice with technology are being built. Community organizations of legal hackers are also popping up around the country, working together to “Open Legal Code” and hosting legal hackathons, as well as democracy-driven technology groups like the component-building Poplus. In D.C., federal open legislative data advocacy groups have formed the Congressional Data Coalition, a natural iterative follow up to the work started by the Open House Project.

Now cities are starting to introduce legal reforms mandating that municipal code and legislative data (ordinances, representatives, votes, meetings) be proactively made available to the public online in structured, machine-readable, open formats — law for open law! In March, after San Francisco made its municipal legal code available on GitHub, Supervisor Mark Farrell introduced a motion that called for San Francisco’s ordinances and all relevant legal information to be made available online in machine-readable formats (as defined by San Francisco’s open data law) within three days of any introduction or amendment to any ordinance or resolution. Last Wednesday, the New York City Council passed a resolution amending their City Council Rules, supported by Councilmember Ben Kallos, that calls for all New York City proposed ordinances and associated legislative information be available through an online database that “will be provided to the general public in a machine-readable format at no cost and without restriction as soon as practicable, in order to facilitate public engagement with the Council through the use of third-party software.”

The Sunlight Foundation is pleased to see and contribute to these policy and technological efforts to make essential law and lawmaking information openly available online and reusable for all. If you’re a local government official or open government advocate looking to join the growing number of cities opening up their legal information:

  • See our Open Data Policy Guidelines and Open Civic Data Schema to support ways to open up law and lawmaking information through policy and compatible data structures
  • Chat #openlaw with us at Transparency Camp
  • Check out the resources mentioned above, rounded up in a chart below
  • Reach out to us at local@sunlightfoundation.com with any questions


When will open legislative data come to your town? Check out these resources.

Did we miss any? Shoot us an email at local@sunlightfoundation.com or leave a comment below.