Thirteen Useful New Features on OpenCongressJune 20, 2008 - by Donny Shaw
The prospect of rifling through cluttered government websites to find information about Congress is enough to make a concerned citizen give up before even starting. With OpenCongress, we’re working to make it easy for anyone to find the exact information they want about every bill, issue, person, and vote in Congress.
Our Biggest Re-Design Yet
As you may have noticed, we recently re-designed the entire site to present information in a more clean and streamlined way. Based on user feedback and surveys, we’ve moved some page elements around to make the site flow better and respond to trends in usage. Instead of the old left-hand sidebar, we now list the site navigation horizontally on the top of the page, opening up more space and improving readability. Also, we moved user comments from the bottom of the page to its own tab at the top of the page, and much more. We’ll be tweaking our new look based on your opinions, so if you have any suggestions or feedback, please send them to us: writeus-at-opencongress-dot-org.
Super Useful Vote Pages
We’ve redesigned our pages of voting results to give you the most information about congressional votes available on the Web. Every roll call vote that happens in the House and Senate is now broken out into separate lists of votes by party position – Republicans voting “Aye,” Democrats voting “Abstain,” etc. It’s easy to see who from your party is voting in the ways you support, and who is voting with the other side. We’ve also displayed this vote data with pretty pie charts so you can get a quick visual understanding of the “ayes” and “nays.” For an example, take a look at the House’s recent vote on the unemployment extension and veterans’ benefits as part of the war funding bill.
Full Bill Text
We now have the full text of every bill in Congress on our site. Just click “See full bill text” below the official summary on any bill page, like this one, for example. This way you can can explore a bill at many levels, from the gritty details of how a provision is worded to a ’bird’s eye’ view of its context within the “My OpenCongress” network, all in one place. Down the road, we’ll have more sophisticated, granular and social ways of commenting on specific parts of a bill’s text. You’ll be able to link your analysis directly to specific language within a bill, and even propose alternative wording or other kinds of improvements.
See All the Bills a Member has Sponsored or Co-Sponsored
Now, on every senator and representative’s page on OpenCongress, you can view a complete list of all the bills he or she has introduced or endorsed in this Congress. The lists give a nice overview of the issues a Member of Congress has been working on. For example, take a look at all the bills Barack Obama has introduced alongside those introduced by John McCain.
Sponsored Bill Statistics
On pages for senators and representatives, just below the most recent sponsored bills, we’ve put up statistics that rank that Member on the success of the bills to which they’ve attached their name. For example, Ted Kennedy (D-MA) leads the Senate in introducing bills that have become law. Chris Dodd (D-CT) leads in successfully attaching his name to other senators’ bills that eventually passed. This is an easy way to compare Members’ legislative accomplishments, or if you’re interested, delve into legislative strategy.
Find more relevant bills, people and issues
To help you find more topics in Congress that you may care about, OpenCongress pages now have lists of other users tracking related bills, issues, and Members. Check it out: if you look at the Farm Bill page, half of the way down, find the text under “Users tracking H.R.2419 (92) are also tracking:”. This collaboratively-filtered data points you to Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, two important global warming bills, the agribusiness issue area, and other topics. Interestingly, it also points you to some things that are less obviously related, like a FISA-reform bill and a bill to expand the list of prohibited weapons. “Users also tracking” is a new and unique way to browse through Congress based on the connections made by citizens, rather than those made by government or interest groups.
View only the best articles
Looking to quickly find the best information about a bill? We’ve added a new feature on our bill pages that lets you see just the news articles and blog posts that OpenCongress users have specifically said are useful. For some bills, we’ve collected thousand of articles — rather than weeding through them all, this feature makes it possible for the OpenCongress community to help each other hone in on the best ones. But for this to have the most impact, people need to help rate the articles. So, when you read a news article or blog post that you found through a link on an OpenCongress bill page, remember to go back to OpenCongress and quickly give it a rating (“Was this article useful? Yes or no” – it takes just one click, it’s nearly instantaneous & certainly painless). This feature has already worked amazingly well at highlighting the best articles – the ones that get to the meat of the matter – for many bill. For example, see the highest-rated blog posts about the Orphan Works Bill and the highest-rated news articles about the Climate Security Act. For complex legislation like that bill, this collaborative rating system produces an enormously useful resource that just wouldn’t be possible without the help of many.
View only the best comments
Just like with news and blog coverage, some site comment boards have accumulated thousands of comments on hundreds of pages. The comments themselves run the gamut from up-to-date analysis of a bill’s status to valuable insights to visceral opinions. Now anyone can sort discussion boards to view comments in order of usefulness, as rated thumbs-up or thumbs-down by our open user community. It’s yet another way that responsive comment boards “filter up” the best content to the top. Check out how this feature brings some very insightful analysis to the forefront that would have otherwise been buried on the comment page for H.R.1955, the Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act. And here are the highest-rated comments of the more than 17,000 comments (!!!) that have been left on our most-viewed page, the Unemployment Bill.
Open ID compatible
We’re happy to support OpenID logins, which allow you to use a single login name and password across the internet. OpenID is “an open, decentralized, free framework for user-centric digital identity,” and we are happy to be part of it. If you already have an OpenID name – and you very well may – you can log into OpenCongress and set up your account just by entering it at the top of any page. Or you can register a “My OpenCongress” account without having to get a new login and password. If you’re not already using “My OpenCongress”, it’s entirely free and takes only a minute, and you’ll have immediate access to all these new features — join today, or login.
See new friend invites when you log in
Now, when you log into your “My OpenCongress” account, you’ll be alerted on your Friends page if you have pending friend requests. It’s a friendly reminder that other people are looking to get in touch — they may have insights on a bill you’re both tracking, or they may be located in your state or Congressional district, or they may simply have seen your comments and share your opinions.
“My OpenCongress” users now have three options for who gets to see different parts of their profile: nobody, friends only, or everybody. These options are available for every aspect of your My OpenCongress profile, so it’s highly customizable. You can make everything public in order to network and share with other users around bills and issues, or you can set your profile to private and use it exclusively for tracking the bills, issues and legislators that you care about. If you don’t want people to know what you’re tracking, you can choose not to show up in the lists on the site (more on that below).
Committees in Congress have a lot of power in determining what bills go to the House or Senate for a vote, and what bills don’t. “My OpenCongress” users can now track actions by committees and monitor the bills that are being assigned to them. This is another great way to keep tabs on what Congress is doing relating to the issues you care about. To see a full list of committees, follow the “Committees” link in the horizontal navigation bar at the top of the screen on every OpenCongress page. Once you’ve picked a committee that you’re interested in, click “track this committee” to add it to your “My OpenCongress” account, and you’ll be monitoring the most recent legislation that falls under their jurisdiction. For example, if you’re interested in environmental issues, you can monitor the Senate Environment and Public Works to see new bills as they come onto the horizon. Soon, you’ll also be able to monitor new reports produced by the committee directly from your account.
See who’s tracking the same bills as you
The last one is another community-enhancing feature. Now, from your page of tracked bills (see mine for an example), tracked senators, or tracked representatives, you can see a list of everybody else that’s tracking the same ones – click on the number link under “Users Tracking” to see that info. You can also get here from most pages on the site – wherever you see the text “Users Tracking This Item” in the middle of a page, click on the number link in parentheses and you’ll see a list of other users in your district, your state, and overall. This way, people can connect with others who are following the same bills to share vital information, organize a call-in campaign, and more. Of course, you can only connect with other users who have made their contact information public, so make sure you go into your privacy settings and specify whether you want your email address and other contact info to be public, private, or available only to your friends.
Taken together, these new features bring us closer to our core mission of making information about our government more accessible and letting people take action on the issues they care about. We’ll continue our site development in this direction, and, as always, we’ll be tweaking these new features and the site in general according to feedback from our users. Please let us know what you think by writing to writeus-at-opencongress-dot-org. Thanks for using OpenCongress.