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OpenGovernment (beta) launches today!

January 18, 2011 - by David Moore

We’re very excited to announce today’s launch of the beta version of our next major project: OpenGovernment.org.

Free & open-source, OpenGovernment is a non-partisan public resource for transparency at any level of government: state, city, local, international, and more. It’s based on OpenCongress.org, the most-visited not-for-profit website in the country for tracking the U.S. Congress, with over a million visits per month and many millions of requests for data served every day. Finally, a version of OpenCongress for state legislatures.

Dedicated to building public knowledge and combating systemic corruption in government, OpenGovernment is a joint project of two 501©3 non-profit organizations, the Participatory Politics Foundation and the Sunlight Foundation. This beta version is launching with information for five state legislatures: California, Louisiana, Maryland, Texas, and Wisconsin. Over the next year, we seek non-profit funding support to roll out OpenGovernment to all 50 U.S. states, dozens of major cities, other countries, and beyond. Official government information comes from the community-driven Open States Project coordinated by Sunlight Labs.

As with OpenCongress, OpenGovernment brings together this official government information with social wisdom from around the open Web, campaign contribution data, and free public participation tools. OpenGovernment offers user-friendly web pages to track and share everything in these five state legislatures: bills, votes, actions, legislators, committees, issues, and much more (what’s most-viewed, most-in-the-news, key votes, etc.). Quick links: read more about us, our data sources, our developer hub, and how you can help us grow.

This is indeed a beta version of the site, so keep in mind that we expect there to be a few kinks, and much more data & features are forthcoming. In that context, our small non-profit development team is incredibly excited to get this new project out onto the open Web and in front of people — we’ve been working on it for three-fourths of the past year in partnership with Sunlight, and we’re excited to roll it out to all 50 states and to foster a diverse (in terms of skills, time, and other) community of volunteer developers around it to remix it.

There are a lot of factors involved here that really motivate us: fighting systemic corruption, liberating public data, advocating comprehensive electoral reform, facilitating peer-to-peer communication about our government, empowering citizen watchdogs — but one of the primary ones is creating user-friendly interfaces for this baffling and arcane world of legislative data. With OpenCongress, we took the hopelessly clunky and outmoded data on THOMAS (via our longtime data partners, GovTrack), as seen here on their page for the major health-care reform bill from the last Congress: 

… and made the data more accessible, with tools at your fingertips to track its status, see what people are saying about, share it with your online community, link to specific sections of its full bill text, and easily contact your members of Congress about it. Here’s the overview page of our version (more detailed info available by diving into tabs on that page, e.g. for the Money Trail or Wiki narrative): 

… keep in mind that when we first conceived of OpenCongress, back in 2004, THOMAS didn’t offer some basic technical features: RSS feeds, permalinks, social sharing tools, lists of most-viewed info, helpful search tips, and more. While the Library of Congress has somewhat caught up with the times, we believe that their main focus, as the primary source for all federal legislative data, should be to move aggressively to comply in full with the community-generated Principles of Open Government Data. Nothing short of this standard is sufficient for public transparency in an accountable representative democracy. Public data can and should be available to the public, immediately and in full, at every level of government, full stop. In the same way, we’ve taken the painfully user-unfriendly information from a hilariously dreadful mishmash of official state .gov websites and turned it, in this beta version, into something more widely accessible to today’s casual web surfer.

Old & busted official .gov bill page from CA:

  … and a glorious official CA state leg. vote page:

… compared to the new & non-busted OpenGovernment (beta) bill page, with annotations about the info it brings together for public benefit:

… another view of a state-level bill page on OG, as can be seen throughout the five states of this beta version, feel free to click around to see more:

… crucially, our pages don’t only put a better-designed style and superior information display on valuable government data (though it does that). It also doesn’t just bring together bills with news coverage, blog posts, social media mentions, campaign contribution data, videos, and more (though it does that too). It also facilitates self-organizing communities to take action directly on our bill pages: 

Track – subscribe to RSS feeds for bill actions and votes by members.

Share – one-click access to social sharing tools makes it easy to spread the word on Facebook & Twitter & Reddit & StumbleUpon & others to come (e.g., Identi.ca & Diaspora).

Contact – simply enter your zip code to view a handy pop-up window with all the official contact information for your state legislator, directly from that bill page. We’re talking phone, email, district & capital office addresses, and more. This is the foundation of a fully non-commercial, open-source toolkit for constituent communication, all of which will be made available in full out to the public commons via a free API and open data downloads. Perfect for political bloggers, issue-based groups, and community advocates looking to contact their elected officials about what matters to them. 

There’s a lot more to say, and we’re interested in hearing your feedback on this beta version, but for now, a quick look ahead to the function of this blog and its relation to our other projects. In the process of building out this beta version, we’ve run into a lot of idiosyncratic & amusing tidbits about the workings of state legislatures — e.g., in Louisiana, “Members of both houses of the State Legislature are free from arrest, except for felony, during their attendance at sessions and committee meetings of their house and while going to and from them. No member shall be questioned elsewhere for any speech in either house.” (cit. Wikipedia). Or rather, our aggregation of bill data from state houses so far has revealed some interesting top-level patterns, which we’ll be blogging about here and encourage the public at large to submit their findings too as they poke around our site and dig into our open data.

A few notes of introduction to each of the five beta state sites. Each state page has categories of info as listed in the left-hand nav bar: bills, people, issues, and the money trail. From bill pages, you can find news & blog coverage, comment forums, and more. From people pages, you can find recent bills sponsored & official actions, roll call results, personal campaign contribution data, comment forums, and more.

California: The 2011-2012 session began on January 3rd, 2011 and is scheduled to run until September 9th, 2011. Last year, the vast majority of bills were introduced in February, followed by smaller peaks in March and July.

Louisiana: The 2011 session begins on April 25th, 2011, and is scheduled to end on June 23rd, 2011. Last year, the vast majority of bills were introduced in April.

Maryland: The 2011 session began on January 12th, 2011 and is scheduled to end in early April. Last year, the vast majority of bills were introduced in February.

Texas: The 82nd Texas Legislature began on January 11th, 2011, and ends on May 30th, 2011. Last year, the vast majority of bills were introduced in March, followed by February and April.

Wisconsin: The 2011-2012 session began on January 11th, 2011 and is scheduled to continue regularly (with some holiday breaks) until December 8th, 2011. Last year, most bills were introduced in February, followed by March and April. … we’ll be writing lots more about patterns we see in the data, but let us know what you’re finding too and we’ll be happy to surface it for all to see. Contact us anytime.

A closing thought for now. In the news, you hear often about the dysfunction of state houses. Let’s build public knowledge about bills in state legislatures together. Thanks to our terrific partners at the Sunlight Foundation, Sunlight Labs, and the awesome volunteer community at Open States. Foundations and philanthropists: we are actively seeking funding partners to roll out this proven model of engagement to all 50 U.S. states, cities, and towns across the country — then to other countries, as OpenGovernment becomes a global platform. We’re working to revolutionize government transparency at the state and local level, and we hope you’ll help us grow. Let us know what you think!

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Comments

  • JustinAPetersWV 01/21/2011 9:32am

    Thank you so much for doing this. Even though I’m sure my state (West Virginia) will be towards the bottom of your list, if I could find out any way to help locally I would be all over it! I support your work towards government transparency 1000%. Please, keep up the good work!

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