A decade of progress opening up congressional data to the public

The U.S. Capitol. (Photo credit: The Architect of the Capitol/Wikimedia Commons; effects by Sunlight Foundation)

Over the past decade, the legislative branch of the United States government has gone through a quiet evolution, moving in fits and starts to integrate the revolution in information technology that has changed every other institution in society. At a historic moment when Congress is deeply unpopular with the American people, it may feel counterintuitive to celebrate the progress that’s been made, but it’s far too easy to lose track of how far we’ve come in a short time.

A decade ago, civic hackers like Josh Tauberer and journalists like ProPublica’s Derek Willis had to build screen scrapers to liberate the legislative data that THOMAS.gov was publishing online. Instead of freeing THOMAS, we are about to bid it farewell in July. Bills from the House of Representatives have been available for bulk download in XML since 2013. In February, Congress started releasing data on bill status. There is ongoing, collaborative feedback about that data between a Bulk Data Task Force and public interest advocates in established, regular public forums and conferences.

A decade ago, the U.S. Code — the living law of the land — was published in heavy print books, with an annual appendix of amendments. Today, it’s published as open government data online by Congress and updated as it changes. The House has an online repository for legislative documents to be considered.

A decade ago, no lawmakers blogged, tweeted, Facebooked, uploaded talks to YouTube or tumbled. Sessions were on C-SPAN, but committee hearings were not. Today, the vast majority of congresspeople uses social media daily. Most committee hearings are livestreamed.

A decade ago, the idea of open source software, much less its use in the People’s House, was a theoretical idea floated at West Coast technology conferences. Today, the House of Representatives has an official open source policy that allows members and staff to not only use open source software, but to contribute to it.

In the months and years ahead, we hope to see the Senate adopt a similar policy, and for both houses of Congress to apply it toward building, adopting and adapting public sector software that opens the legislative branch to the people it serves.

Over the last 10 years, Sunlight has been part of many conversations in the District of Columbia and far beyond, pushing, cajoling, nudging and occasionally dragging our natural allies and opponents into the 21st century. Sometimes our involvement has been through example, where we’ve collaborated with civic hackers like the founder of Govtrack to open legislative data and publish it when Congress did not. Other times, it’s been through the dedicated advocacy of staff like Daniel Schuman, who continues to light the way for the next steps for open data for the Congressional Data Coalition, or lobbying for specific bills or reforms in the rules themselves.

I’ve attended three different events since I joined Sunlight at the beginning of April that have reminded me just how much has changed in Congress since I came to D.C. in the summer of 2009: a meeting of the Bulk Data Task Force, a legislative data “Demo Day” in Congress and a forum on what happens when law becomes open data. In each, I heard about how the policy and production of open legislative data has matured — from reforming how a legislature discloses data to the ecosystem of institutions, businesses, nonprofits and startups that apply it toward providing customers with business intelligence and citizens with civic intelligence.

Today, I’m headed to the Legislative Data and Transparency Conference at the Capitol with other Sunlighters. You can watch the livestream online, read the agenda and participate in the public backchannel on Twitter at #LDTC16, if you’re interested. Whether you do or do not attend, it’s worth stepping back to think about how far we’ve come since the Open House Project in 2007.

Many thanks to everyone who has built the foundation for open government reforms we’ve seen in Congress over the years, and to every one of those who continues to advocate for transparency and accountability inside and outside of the institution. Our government will only be as good as we make. Here’s to the next 10 years of making our government of the people, by the people work better with the people.