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Announcing 4 Big Features - Wiki, Video, and More

March 5, 2009 - by Donny Shaw

We have four major features to announce on OpenCongress today, and we are very excited about each one of them. Here’s an overview, with more info and examples of each new feature below:

1. OpenCongress Wiki – for every Senator, Representative and major piece of legislation in Congress, there is now a space for people to work together to build a comprehensive overview of all the most important information – the stuff that can’t be gotten from government data sources alone.

2. Videos from Metavid, the open video archive of the U.S. Congress, and the YouTube hubs for the House and Senate. Now, for every Senator, Representative, and major bill in Congress, OpenCongress shows you embedded video footage of relevant floor speeches, official announcements, and more. It’s video, it’s awesome.

3. Inline commenting on bill text, now with the ability to compare different versions of a bill. Building off our feature to comment and link to a bill’s official text, paragraph-by-paragraph, now text changes are displayed in different color type for at-a-glance comparison. Jump in to sections, compare, and comment on such high-profile legislation as the Stimulus Bill, the major Omnibus Spending Bill, and every bill in Congress.

4. For the Read The Bill campaign from the Sunlight Foundation and others, a new page to track bills that have been rushed through the Congressional process. Subscribe to the RSS feed to watchdog bills that haven’t been posted for open public review on the Internet for 72 hours before debate begins.

OpenCongress Wiki

Introducing the OpenCongress Wiki! This is something we’ve been aiming to do since starting the site, and we are really happy to finally be realizing this goal by integrating the incredible content that was formerly housed at Congresspedia. We’re very excited to announce the integration of the Wiki – both the rich information about Congress that we’ve imported, as well as the ability for our open user community to use the wiki in innovative ways.

On bill pages, the OpenCongress Wiki serves as a collaborative editing space for people to work through legislation line-by-line, translating the legalese into plain language and interpreting the implications of the proposed changes to the law. Wiki pages also give a narrative overview of every action that is taken on a bill by Congress, from introduction, to committee, amending, passing, conference, and, finally, being signed into law by the President. All content on the Wiki will be thoroughly sourced, so you can trace back the information to be sure of its quality. The best part of all this is that we already have a great foundation to build this off of. For an example bill page to see where things are starting, click the “Wiki” tab on the Stimulus Bill, or the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009.

Senator and representative Wiki pages are starting out even stronger. The information we are including for the launch the OpenCongress wiki is some of the best around for getting a thorough, non-partisan overview of what a member of Congress is all about. You can view information on senator and representative’s key votes, political views, controversies and scandals, personal life, campaign financing, and much more. Click the “Wiki” tab on Sen. Chris Dodd’s (D-CT) page or Rep. Roy Blunt’s (R-MO) page to view an example.

There are also hundreds of pages in the wiki that don’t fit into these categories. They are organized into sections and linked organically throughout the Wiki. Here are a handful to check out:

…Poke around a bit and you’ll find a lot more.

Even though we are launching the OpenCongress wiki with some great content already in place, we need everyone to lend a hand in helping us build public knowledge about Congress. If you are reading this, you probably have more political savviness than the average person, and there is probably an issue, member of Congress, or piece of legislation that you know particularly well. The OpenCongress wiki is built entirely by readers like yourself, so please be bold in adding your knowledge to the Wiki pages. To get in touch, email Conor Kenny, the Site Editor: conor@opencongress.org.

To get you started, we have put together some help documentation with information on how to edit a page, how to start a new page, how to cite your sources, and lots more. Note for developers: the OpenCongress Wiki uses the Semantic MediaWiki platform, so all the Wiki content can be queried and remixed – for more on that, view the still-in-development OpenCongress API, or write conor@opencongress.org. Thanks to Yaron Koren, our lead Wiki programmer, for his assistance and expertise.

The OpenCongress Wiki is still in beta, so you may come across a bug or two in your browsing. If you do, feel free to email us with a bug report at writeus@opencongress.org. We’ll be fixing stuff that’s broken and making improvements continually.

Video Feeds of Congress

We’re also pleased to be integrating the best video footage of Congress that’s publicly available. OpenCongress automatically brings in relevant videos for of Members of Congress and prominent bills from Metavid, the open video archive, and the YouTube Senate Hub and House Hub. Video coverage for legislation and floor debates comes primarily from Metavid, a non-profit project of UC Santa Cruz and the Sunlight Foundation serving as a community archive project for public domain US legislative footage. We’re very proud to be working closely with Metavid on their important mission to make our (small-d) democratic public policy deliberations more widely accessible to the public. What’s more, because Metavid is also a Wiki and our data is connected, you can help improve video coverage on both sites by getting involved and participating in the effort to open up the Congressional process to the vital world of online video.

Here’s where you can find video footage throughout our site. On every page for senators and representatives, about halfway down we display the two most recent videos relevant to that Member, with links to “view all” – often upwards of 50 total videos per person, and growing. For people in Congress, my personal favorite video pages are Rep. Barney Frank’s (D-MA) and Rep. Ted Poe’s (R-TX). Since this is just the beginning of our video integration, only some of the most prominent bills are currently bringing in videos from Metavid – the Stimulus Bill being the best example as of now — and we hope you’ll help us expand our offerings by tagging videos with associated bills over at Metavid. Each video comes with descriptions of the title, speaker, date, and length, and here’s a tip: drag the indicator in the progress bar to skip ahead (or “seek” ahead) to a later point in the video, it loads pretty quickly.

Compare Bill Text

Building off our previous announcement of inline commenting on bill text, now it’s possible to compare different versions of a bill on the OpenCongress bill text viewer – where bills have been altered by the House or Senate, changes to the text will display in different colors and with strikethrough. At the top of the bill text, in the section for “Version History”, click the link to “Show Changes” wherever it appears — for example, see the Stimulus Bill, which received 3,244 changes in its final version. A good place to get started with commenting on specific sections of text (though there weren’t many changes to the bill) is the $410 billion Omnibus Spending Bill.

Read the Bill!

Finally, OpenCongress is proud to be a part of the Read The Bill campaign, kicked off by the Sunlight Foundation and endorsed by a variety of well-known organizations. From their About page: “Too often, controversial bills are voted on hours after coming to the House or Senate floor. There is no time for members of Congress to read the bill, and no chance for interested citizens to weigh in on the legislation. ReadTheBill.org’s mission is to strengthen our democracy by making sure elected officials and citizens have the chance to read and understand legislation.” As a first step, we encourage you to sign the petition: “Congress should change its rules to require that non-emergency legislation and conference reports be posted on the Internet for 72 hours before debate begins.”

To support this effort, OpenCongress dug into legislative data to create a page of Rushed Bills: bills in Congress for which the time of the full bill text being available to the time of the bill’s initial consideration is less than 72 hours. To track bills that haven’t had enough time to be openly scrutinized before debate begins, simply subscribe to the RSS feed on that page and help watchdog Congress. Let us know what you think of this common-sense campaign to open up the legislative process: writeus@opencongress.org.

Enjoy the Wiki and the videos! Compare and comment on bills you care about! Tell Congress to Read the Bill! And contribute your knowledge in the Wiki. As always, let us know what you think and how you’re using these new features!

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Comments

  • tlalbert 03/05/2009 10:40am

    Outstanding, David, keep up the great work.

  • Anonymous 03/05/2009 12:44pm

    Great!! Hard work but worth it. KUDOs!!

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