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“Sites of Real Engagement”: OpenGovernment.org Opens Up State Legislation

OpenGovernment.org is a new, free site providing online access to information about proposed legislation in U.S. states. Funded by the Sunlight Foundation and the Participatory Politics Foundation (PPF) and now covering six U.S. states, OpenGovernment.org — which launched in January 2011 — enables citizens and organizations to learn about and track pending state legislation, the activities and votes of state legislators, issues that are the subject of proposed legislation, and campaign contributions to state legislators.

In July I spoke with David Moore and Carl Tashian — respectively PPF’s Executive Director and Director of Technology, and the developers of OpenGovernment.org — about the principles and technology that inform OpenGovernment.org, and what is known about the users and usage of the service. The following is an account of our discussion.

Overview and Key Functions

OpenGovernment.org is a free site that provides up-to-date information on legislation pending in U.S. state legislatures. This information includes not only the texts of proposed bills, but also contextual information, such as the key issues discussed in each bill, votes on the bills, the legislators related to each bill and their voting records, and campaign finance information for each legislator. Using OpenGovernment.org, citizens can identify pending bills on topics or keywords of interest to them; read the texts of the bills; get bill status information, including update notifications by email or RSS; locate news stories and blog posts about the bills; find biographical, voting, and campaign finance information about legislators who sponsored or voted on those bills; and learn which special interest organizations active on those issues contributed to legislators’ campaigns, and which legislators received the most money from those organizations. Users can also participate in the legislative process through OpenGovernment.org by commenting on the text of bills or contacting legislators about bills. (Additional ways in which users can interact with data on the service are described here.)

According to Mr. Moore, OpenGovernment.org is intended to provide data and functionality at the state level comparable to those of OpenCongress, another transparency and eParticipation service sponsored jointly by PPF and Sunlight.

“The Chain of Engagement” and “Transparency with Teeth”

Like OpenCongress, OpenGovernment.org has two primary purposes: to increase the transparency of information about proposed legislation, and to foster citizens’ participation in the legislative process. Mr. Moore explains that the design of OpenGovernment.org is informed by the view that transparency and eParticipation are interrelated concepts.

Mr. Moore use two metaphors to describe this relationship. The first is that of a “chain of engagement.” With OpenGovernment.org, he explains, “we can walk users up the chain of engagement,” beginning with “information provision” and “eventually leading to engagement” in the legislative process, through functions such as posting comments on proposed bills and sending email to legislators. “With a user-focused interface design,” Mr. Moore says, “we can foster multiple functions related to legislative information,” to create “an open source version of Facebook for government.” “Both transparency and participation tools are necessary for true engagement,” he argues.

The second metaphor Mr. Moore employs is that of “transparency with teeth.” By providing sufficient primary and contextual information about legislation, in a user interface that makes reception of, understanding of, and taking action on that information “as easy as possible,” OpenGovernment.org can enable “meaningful public input” and “real accountability in government” — “transparency with teeth” — in which citizens “hold members [of the legislature] accountable for their decisions, and for their budget choices.” “Everyone should want that,” he asserts.

Mr. Moore emphasizes that OpenGovernment.org belongs to a wider eParticipation movement. According to Mr. Moore, “our ultimate vision is of an ecosystem of open standards for civic engagement,” of which Open 311 — the emergent “open standard for reporting non-emergency issues” to government — provides a model. Mr. Moore continues: “[W]e can envision … interoperable standards [similar to Open 311, enabling] … a citizen to track a bill’s status, see version control of its full text, watchdog lobbying disclosures and public hearings around it, vote on a section of bill text, perform[] local [Congressional Budget Office]-type estimates, and practice deliberative democracy in considering [a bill’s] final passage.” As additional evidence of this “ecosystem,” Mr. Moore points to legislative standards and other standards being developed on Code for America‘s and OpenPlansCivic Commons platform.

Principles: Open Government Data and the FCC Report on “The Information Needs of Communities”

A distinctive feature of OpenGovernment.org is that the policy principles informing the site are expressly and extensively set out on the site’s “About” page. Mr. Moore explained that the core ideas of the Open Government Data movement, as formalized in the “Eight Principles of Open Government Data” agreed during meetings in Sebastapol in 2007 in which Mr. Moore participated, underlie the approach and design of OpenGovernment.org. “True open government data is the foundation for online participation,” Mr. Moore said, “and we are trying to demonstrate how it can work.” Mr. Moore identified Tom Bruce of the Legal Information Institute, Carl Malamud of Public.Resource.Org and the Law.gov legal open government data movement, and Professor Beth Simone Noveck of New York Law School, as sources of inspiration for the creative use of government data in OpenGovernment.org. These leaders in open government data have demonstrated, according to Mr. Moore, how “from this level playing field of open data,” using “open platforms,” “we can develop tools for microfunctions,” such as engagement concerning particular pieces of legislation, as well as tools for “macrofunctions,” such as public action on broad policy issues.

I asked Mr. Moore how OpenGovernment.org fit within the account of the U.S. news media landscape set out in the U.S. Federal Communications Commission‘s (FCC‘s) recent report, The Information Needs of Communities. (A summary of legal information issues discussed in the report is available here.) In that report, the FCC describes a recent, dramatic diminution in U.S. news reporting about state and local government, and urges nonprofit media and new media organizations to step in to fill this gap in public affairs reporting. Mr. Moore agreed with the FCC’s assessment: “We’re seeing the erosion of institutions for civic engagement,” he said. Mr. Moore also agreed with the FCC’s proposed solution. “New media can fill that gap,” Mr. Moore asserted, “and even — in a rosy view of the situation — can improve on traditional media” in the quality of state-level public affairs information provision and the opportunity for civic engagement in response to that information.

Users and Usage

What types of citizens and organizations been using OpenGovernment.org so far, and what kinds of information have they been accessing on the service? Mr. Moore says that the “hardest core users” of OpenGovernment.org to date fall into three categories: (1) “political bloggers,” who “use RSS feeds” to track the status of bills and who also “need bill text”; (2) “legal researchers, access-to-information advocates, and free-culture advocates” who seek to use the service to perform legal research, to demonstrate the value of open government data, or to integrate OpenGovernment.org data with other data and systems; and (3) “issue-based activist groups,” such as “community organizers, nonprofit allies [of the service], and organizations whose presence is already known in state capitals, such as families of incarcerated persons”; organizations in this latter category make use of the “informational resources” provided by OpenGovernment.org, “as well as free organizing tools [provided by the service] for their community.”

Mr. Moore added that “online political journalism operations” — such as California Watch, MinnPost.com, The Texas Tribune, and WisconsinWatch — “are a key target audience for our free OpenGovernment tools and open data offerings.” MinnPost.com and WisconsinWatch have begun linking to OpenGovernment.org, he said. In addition, Mr. Moore asserted, within the next few weeks, all four of these organizations will be drawing data via the OpenGovernment.org API, and offering their readers access to those data with free OpenGovernment.org HTML widgets. (The API and widgets are described further below.)

In terms of content, Mr. Moore said that “bills [are] the most popular type of content” available on OpenGovernment.org. Mr. Moore explained that all of the service’s data are indexed by Google, and that bill titles tend to be easily accessible and heavily searched on Google. As a result, so-called “viral bills” are the most frequently accessed resources on OpenGovernment.org. “When bills go viral,” Mr. Moore explained, “people hear about a bill in their community, and then go searching for information about it” online. He cited the example of the recent “Wisconsin budget bill,” which, after having become a popular topic on social media, received very heavy usage on OpenGovernment.org. Similarly, “in the last three months,” Mr. Moore said, several “hot bills in Texas” — HB 274, SB 81, SB 321, and SB 785 — after having gained notoriety among the people, “have become the most popular bills on the site.” Mr. Moore observed that of the “top 25″ most popular bills on OpenGovernment.org, “almost all are viral bills.” He noted that “people are self-organizing around bills” on OpenGovernment.org, with the effect that bills have become “sites of real engagement, day to day” for users of the system.

Mr. Moore further identified “major budget bills in each state,” and “key bills” — such as California SB 48, a recent education bill — “as indicated by Project VoteSmart” — a data source for OpenGovernment.org — as additional, frequently accessed resources on the service.

Mr. Moore noted that users of the service can easily learn which bills are most popular on OpenGovernment.org, because the bills receiving the most page views appear on each state’s home page, under “Popular Bills.” (The California page demonstrates this.) Mr. Moore said that a “Hot Bills” function — like the one at OpenCongress, which allows users to vote on bills and then ranks bills by the total number of votes cast by users — is not yet available on OpenGovernment.org, but would be rolled out in the coming months. Mr. Moore also noted that OpenGovernment.org lets users sort bills by several criteria.

Technology and Data

Mr. Moore and Mr. Tashian described the technology that powers OpenGovernment.org. All of the software in the OpenGovernment.org architecture is free and open source. According to Mr. Tashian, the architecture includes a PostgreSQL database, which PPF “runs on their own server”; GeoServer open source geospatial data server for “serving up maps”; the Thinking Sphinx Ruby library, that provides “full text indexing” on the site; the MongoDB open source database software, for analytics (see the explanation here); and the “DocumentCloud JavaScript viewer” for “convert[ing] PDF to PNG and text files.”

Much of OpenGovernment.org‘s data are accessible through an open API. Currently, data available via the API include information about legislatures and legislative sessions; legislators, their biographies, votes, page views, and “news coverage”; legislative committees and their members; an index of the most popular bills; and data on individual bills, including page views and “news coverage.” Data available via the API are governed by a “Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 US” license. For more details on the data available through the API, see the description here. More details about OpenGovernment.org‘s technology appear on the OpenGovernment.org blog.

Mr. Moore and Mr. Tashian emphasized that they are “always looking for volunteers” to help with development of the service’s technology. Developers are invited to visit the service’s Developer Hub, and to join the service’s IRC channel: chat.freenode.net channel #opengovernment.

Respecting data sources, OpenGovernment.org currently makes use of legislative data from Sunlight’s Open States Project, and contextual data from Project VoteSmart, the National Institute on Money in State PoliticsFollow the Money service, Wikipedia, Google News, and blogs indexed by Google. All of these data are acquired via APIs and aggregated by the GovKit Ruby gem, from which OpenGovernment.org pulls new data once a day. According to Mr. Tashian, primary legal documents from the Open States Project are received daily in JSON format. (See a diagram of the data flows here.)

Funding and Sustainability

According to Mr. Moore, OpenGovernment.org is currently “fund[ed] by Sunlight Foundation,” and “outreach to other foundations is ongoing [in order to facilitate the service’s] roll out in other states.” As for long-term funding, Mr. Moore said that OpenGovernment.org looked to the Mozilla Project as a model. While keeping the basic OpenGovernment.org public service free of charge, PPF plans for OpenGovernment.org eventually to become “majority sustained by revenues” by means of charging high-use organizations for access. “Some of our data and functionality may be of use to media companies, political blog networks, [and] activist groups,” who are likely willing to pay for it, he said. Mr. Moore added that PPF also intends to seek long-term funding for OpenGovernment.org from other “philanthropic …partners.”

What’s Ahead?

Currently, OpenGovernment.org covers six U.S. states — Minnesota, the sixth state, was added in June — and plans to cover all fifty states in the coming months. I asked Mr. Moore what challenges currently prevented PPF from including data from the remaining 44 states in OpenGovernment.org. The first “expected hurdle,” he said, was that the Open States Project, PPF’s “primary source for all legislative data,” presently covers only 30 states. The second, Mr. Moore said, is “funding for open source development time; we could do a lot more with a couple more software engineers.” Mr. Moore noted that OpenGovernment.org “is focusing on legislatures” for now, because the Open States Project has succeeded in making much U.S. state legislative data free and open. However, much key government “data isn’t yet liberated,” notably most court decisions, as well as “spending data about the executive branch” in most states.

I asked Mr. Moore what additional features and functions he would like to see in OpenGovernment.org. Our “data aren’t yet real-time enough,” he acknowledged. The goal, he said, is to create a “digestible activity stream” of real-time legislative data. “We have good data for votes, committee memberships, [and] bill texts,” he said, “but users’ experience will be better [when legislators’] statements, more video, and [legislators’] public schedules” are added to the system in close to real-time. He noted that video and legislators’ public schedules are “really important to our users.”

Acknowledging that many U.S. citizens’ primary language is other than English, Mr. Moore stated that OpenGovernment.org “plan[s] to develop a multilingual interface.” Meanwhile, Mr. Moore noted that “our data can be remixed for this purpose” [i.e., translation]. He observed that OpenGovernment.org partners with the Miro Community to enable users to post their own videos about legislation to OpenGovernment.org; and the Miro Community supports subtitles from Universal Subtitles, the open subtitle service. Mr. Moore notes that with Universal Subtitles, users can “create semantic subtitles for campaign ads [and] videos of floor speeches,” and can create “permalinks to [particular] statements” in a video. Mr. Moore noted that the ability for users to acquire and re-use OpenGovernment.org data for purposes of translation is emblematic of the site’s open-data ethos: it’s an “example of our dedication to accessible content.”

Mr. Moore then described PPF’s “Wish List” for OpenGovernment.org. The overall vision, he said, is to add to the service “a whole range of watchdogging functions, with engagement tools on top.” “Soon, we’ll offer free HTML widgets, so [users] can track bills, and members, and issues,” he said. In the coming months, the service plans to offer state-delegation pages, with links to blogs that cover legislation in each state, similar to the state-specific pages on OpenCongress (such as this page for California). OpenGovernment.org will soon allow users to “like” particular bills, and to vote on bills, as users can now do on OpenCongress.

Other features and functions that PPF hopes to add to OpenGovernment.org in the near future include: apps for Android, iPhone, and other mobile platforms; “[d]ynamic district maps” using GeoServer; more functions for contacting legislators; RSS feeds for more data and activities, including tracking of related bills in different legislative chambers; a “unified, easy-to-digest ‘activity feed’ of [all legislative] actions” that users wish to track; greater integration of video, through the Miro Community platform; and integration of data from Little Sis, the open network analysis service, that shows relationships between leaders in government and business. For more details on future plans for OpenGovernment.org, see the service’s Wish List.

As a member of the open government data community, OpenGovernment.org is also advocating for open public access, in open, interoperable formats, to additional categories of law-related data. These include: legislators’ social media profiles and posts; legislators’ “public schedules”; state-level campaign contribution data respecting particular bills, similar to that provided by the MAPLight service; structured “[b]ill-text data,” to foster such functions as “permalinking to individual sections of bill[s],” “version control” of bills, “tracking [of] changes” to bills, comparison of bill sections among chambers and jurisdictions, and “collaborative bill drafting by the public”; and “[o]fficial video streams of state government actions.” For more details on data sought by OpenGovernment.org, click here.

How You Can Help and Learn More

As noted above, OpenGovernment.org welcomes assistance from volunteer developers. To find out how you can help, please visit the OpenGovernment.org Developer Hub and Pivotal Tracker project. To learn more about OpenGovernment.org and stay up-to-date on the service’s activities, visit the service’s “About” page, read the OpenGovernment.org Blog, or join the service’s mailing list, Twitter feed (@open_gov), Facebook page, or IRC channel ( #opengovernment on irc.freenode.net ).

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Comments

  1. Robert Richards

    Many Twitter tweets about this post are listed at Topsy: http://bit.ly/qOWUJF

  2. This is a great overview of an ambitious and important civic service. I wonder how they will address issues of authentication and preservation in the long term.