Announcing OpenCongress v.3 - Now the Easiest Way to Organize and Contact CongressJuly 27, 2011 - by Donny Shaw
OpenCongress is pleased to announce the release of version 3 of its free & open-source public resource website, putting new tools for engaging with Congress at the center of the site experience.
With this new version 3, OpenCongress now offers the easiest way to write a letter to all three of your members of the U.S. Congress, all from one webpage, send it immediately over email, and then track & share the correspondence in a transparent public forum. No other online service offers features to write all of one’s federal elected officials from one place at once, as OpenCongress does, in an open-source & not-for-profit web application. We think it’s an immediate and compelling user experience and a significant step towards the goal of open-source, continually-engaged constituent communication.
OpenCongress version 3’s new engagement tools are primarily composed of two complementary sets of enhanced site features, free and open to everyone ::
- Contact-Congress: an open-source web tool to find and write a letter to all three of your members of Congress, send it immediately to their official government contact email addresses, track responses, and share the letter with the OpenCongress community and over social media.
- MyOC Groups: an open-source social network on OpenCongress that provides the necessary tools for people who share a position on an issue to work together on watchdogging, educating, and organizing actions directed at Congress. It also helps OpenCongress users link up with established organizations that are already working on issues they care about.
To launch the letter-writing experience from any bill page, select in the right-hand sidebar whether you support, oppose or are simply tracking the bill.
You will then be prompted to choose which of your three members of Congress you want to write to. Our Contact Congress tool offers the unique advantage of making it possible to write to all three elected officials at the same time.
Next, draft your letter using our innovative letter-building platform that makes it simple to pull official bill information, transparency data, and social wisdom into your letter. Adding these details to your letter tells your members of Congress that you are paying close attention and have done your research. It also makes it clear that this is a unique communication, not a form letter.
While composing your letter, click on campaign finance data about special-interest groups that have taken a position on the bill to add it to your letter. You can also use this one-click tool to add information about a bill’s status, its popularity (or lack thereof) among OpenCongress users, the most noteworthy sections of the legislative text as determined by number of user comments, and much more. To view a sample of a letter I drafted to my senator in less than five minutes using this tool, click here.
Once you’ve sent your letter, you can choose to share your letter with a MyOC Group and collectively track responses, or keep it private. You also have the option to print your letter and send it via snail mail just to be doubly-sure they receive it.
Now, with version 3, you can join a variety of “MyOC” groups: geographic Groups, issue-based Groups, political-affinity Groups, or be a lead organizer and create one of your own. Find Groups by searching for keywords, selecting an issue area of focus, or sorting Groups, either alphabetically or by total number of members. Any MyOC member can start their own group and recruit new members to join around a common cause.
Groups can state their positions for or against bills in Congress, add text and links to explain their bill positions, and post content on a main group feed that members can track via web, email, or RSS.
Starting with this OC v3 release and ongoing as more are accumulated, position statements from MyOC Groups will be brought over to display on OC bill pages, giving new visitors unique, useful, at-a-glance context of the reasons why various MyOC Groups support or oppose a given bill. This will encompass both the Groups with the most relevant issue-area focus, the greatest number of MyOC members, and the most active membership. The goal is to build public knowledge about a bill in-context — who supports it, who opposes it, and how the Money Trail surrounding it plays out. All of this information is necessary in order to fully evaluate a bill’s legislative standing & chance of passing, as well as the greater political landscape around it in Congress. Down the road, the goal is to create more automated alerts that flag the campaign contributions behind a bill and indicate donations deserving of more public scrutiny.
On group pages, peope can browse which bills are supported and opposed (members only if the group is private), and choose to write letter to their members of Congress about them.
Then they can share their letters with the group and collectively track responses.
These new features will enable individuals and organizations to contact their elected officials more efficiently than ever before, facilitating self-organizing issue-based communities and increasing public accountability in Congress.
Important note: I strongly encourage you to visit your account settings (click on user name at top of page) and set your privacy settings to public to take full advantage of these features. Users will not be able to access your email address and we, of course, will never share your information with anyone. Setting your account to public simply allows other users in your state, congressional district, and who shre your concerns on issues in Congress to connect with you and start organizing.
OpenCongress Version 1, which went public in February 2007, combined official government information with news & blog coverage, campaign contribution data, public comment forums, RSS feeds, and more. The site allowed visitors to access information about the arcane legislative process more easily than ever before and understand what’s really happening with bills, in context and at-a-glance.
Version 2 of the site, launched January 2008, added “My OpenCongress” social networking features & one-click social media sharing for collaborative watchdogging of Congress. “MyOC” allowed users to create customized lists of tracked bills, issue areas, and votes by their elected officials, then connect with other people with shared interests. At its peak during the health care reform debate of the summer of 2009, OpenCongress received more than one million visits per month, and currently hosts nearly 200,000 registered “MyOC” users, making it the most-visited not-for-profit web resource for government transparency in the United States and most likely the world.
Version 3.0 of OpenCongress takes the site’s already-popular engagement tools and makes them more powerful & one-of-a-kind. As of v3.0, OpenCongress is the only free & open-source website that enables individuals and organizations to send an email to their two U.S. senators and one U.S. representative at once, from one page. Then, users can track their letter’s status, including any potential replies from Congressional offices, and share it with their various “MyOC” Groups, as well as over social media with their wider communities.
OCv3 consists of a few more feature enhancements worth mentioning ::
New Widgets — OpenCongress has redesigned its free customizable HTML widgets, for outside webpages to embed and display the most-recent information about topics they’re following in Congress directly with their communities. New widgets include:
- Bill status – overview of any bill’s official information, current status, and a link to write a letter of support or opposition or tracking for that bill to your members of Congress.
- Most-viewed bills on OpenCongress – see what’s hot, an interesting complement to bills that are most-in-the-news.
- MyOC Group activity widget — shows summary info for any Group and its bill positions supporting or opposing, with a link to its homepage on OC to see full info.
Facebook Connect — now users can register or login to a free MyOC account with their personal Facebook profile. As of the moment, OC only asks for a user’s email address from FB so as to connect and verify the accounts, but in the future OpenCongress will allow users to opt-in (note: not opt-out, but rather giving users the privacy-aware option to opt-in) to automatically bring their site actions — say, letters sent to their members of Congress — over to their Facebook pages for social sharing.
API enhancements — We’ve added even more important data about how the public is interacting with Congress to our API. All bills and people now have permalinks and other new fields/associations exposed, all user comments are now included, and data about MyOC Groups has been added. In the future we’ll be working to enhance these open API offerings so that developers can query information about pubilc letters to Congress sent from Contact-Congress on OC, including their position on bills, issue area of focus, campaign contribution data noted, members of Congress written, and more. In other words, we’ll keep building it out, and we invite your assistance and funding support to accelerate our efforts at making this data available free of charge and with copyleft licensing to the public commons.
My OpenCongress profile page re-design — we’ve overhauled the design of MyOC profile pages since they launched two years ago, making them more elegant and making it easier to find your letters-to-Congress and then share them with your MyOC Groups on your Group homepages. Going forward, our goal with MyOC Groups & profiles is to offer ever-easier dashboards of what’s happening in your state and Congressional district, as well as the latest news with all the issue areas you’re following in Congress.
Formaggedon — Contact-Congress on OC is powered by Formaggedon, innovative open-source software that can be remixed to customize webform submissions to entities other than Congress. Formaggedon can handle both incoming & outgoing email communications as well as multi-step forms — while it is not a captcha solver, it does bring over the captcha form to the human end user in order to be successfully completed, and then alerts the sender to the status of delivery to each of the intended recipients. Responses from Congressional offices to the Contact-Congress emails are sent to special Formaggedon email addresses in order to copy and display them on the correspondence page, and the user is then alerted immediately to the presence of a reply by an email alert with a handy link to the correct permalink letter page on OC. Written by PPF, Formaggedon can be remixed in a number of ways to deliver emails: for example, from the grassroots to officials in state & local governments, international institutions, Boards of Directors of companies, membership groups w/ webforms, and more.
Let us know what you think & how you’re using the new Contact-Congress features! Send us an email: writeus at opencongress d0t org. Also, if you appreciate our free & not-for-profit work in making the easiest tool to write your members of the U.S. Congress, consider making a tax-exempt donation to support our work. We require additional resources to keep OpenCongress running & further develop our free & open-source tools for deliberative democracy.