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Big News

October 29, 2013 - by David Moore

I’m pleased to announce, on behalf of the Participatory Politics Foundation, that our flagship project OpenCongress.org has been acquired by the Sunlight Foundation .

The Participatory Politics Foundation (PPF) created OpenCongress in 2006 and launched it in 2007. Since then, OC grew quickly to become the most-visited nonprofit site for tracking the U.S. Congress, with a total of 27 million web visits, 69 million pageviews and 300,000 registered users.

I’m proud of the OpenCongress user community that grew organically and their huge appetite for engagement with Congress. With news of this acquisition, I’m now excited to introduce the OC community to PPF’s next major project, AskThem:

askthem.io  

… a free and open-source website for questions-and-answers with public figures. AskThem, like OpenCongress, is nonprofit and nonpartisan, with open data for remixing. And it’s coming soon.

AskThem is a version of the White House’s “ We the People” petition platform – for every elected official. We’ve gathered official government data for over 142,000 elected officials nationwide, from local city council members up to U.S. senators. We think a “We The People’” should exist for every elected official, and now with AskThem, it does.

Sign up now to be notified when AskThem will launch publicly, and be the first to ask a question – or target a petition – to your elected officials. Ask your mayor. Ask your governor. Ask your U.S. representative.

This transition is a perfect next step in PPF’s nonprofit mission to help people engage with government through open-source, user-focused websites. Of course, the Sunlight Foundation, as the founding and primary supporter of OpenCongress, will continue to operate OC as a free and open-source public resource.

Just as OpenCongress was not only about government transparency (legislation and votes in Congress), but also civic engagement (user comments and personal votes on bills), so will AskThem allow users to find official information for over 142,000 elected officials – and then engage them in online public dialogue. We’re invested in building broadly-useful web tools that harness open government data for greater civic participation.

Here’s how AskThem works. Individuals and organizations submit a question to an elected official – for example, asking their U.S. representative, “Do you support the forthcoming NSA reform bills?”

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People then sign on to the questions and petitions they support, voting them up on AskThem and sharing them over social media.

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When a question passes a pre-determined threshold of signatures, AskThem delivers it to the elected official over email and social media. We’ll encourage an official response – for example, “More than 2,000 of your constituents have asked you to answer this question on AskThem in an open public forum.”

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When a  question you asked or signed receives a response, you’ll get an email notice, and you can comment on the response further, creating a public feedback loop. Any elected official can sign-up on AskThem, for free, to respond to questions and petitions from the public on our nonprofit platform.

Screenshot of example response from an elected official [Above] Screenshot of example response from an elected official

AskThem will soon announce its first group of U.S. elected officials who have signed-up with AskThem to address public questions as leaders in responsive government. Interested elected officials can sign up now for more information on AskThem and view our slide deck . Our nonprofit Advisory Council includes open-government leaders such as Micah Sifry, Zephyr Teachout, Nick Grossman, Tiffiniy Cheng, Nicco Mele and PPF’s longtime inspiration, Tom Steinberg of mySociety (UK).

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There’s more that’s new on AskThem. Visitors entering a street address on AskThem, for the first time in an open-source website, can see all of their elected officials – from federal to state and down to the municipal level. You’ll also be able to ask questions to any public figure with a verified Twitter account – which should generate interesting #opendata on the issues people care about. And as we have with OpenCongress, we’ve aggregated useful contextual information on government actions – for example, city council agenda minutes, or issue group ratings for state and federal legislators – to help facilitate good questions.

The popularity of the White House’s ‘We The People’ petition platform shows that citizens want to be in regular conversation with the people who represent them. The ability to easily raise an issue with your city council member or your state legislator, and then organize around it locally and nationally, can be powerful. I’m excited to get AskThem out into the wild open web.

It has been a monumental fortune in my life to have OpenCongress as my and my team’s major project over the past seven years. It’s been a hectic historical period, from the 110th to the 113th U.S. Congresses, hitting their historic lows in public esteem (according to Gallup , public approval of Congress is at a 30-year low of 11%) – yes yes, lower than cockroaches, lower than the U.S. going communist.

Many days, when OC was receiving up to one million visits per month, my colleagues and I would marvel at the incredible traffic – thousands of visits per day to a little-known bill, dozens of comments from users all over the country grappling with what the bill means and what it would do. Importantly, OC site visitors were not just legal researchers and lobbyists, but rather primarily a mass audience of political information consumers, arriving from search engine queries to find the real story behind a bill in Congress.

In a separate post on our PPF blog, I’ll recap some of our successes and lessons learned over the past seven years with OC – and how I see the #opengov landscape has changed, and what’s still needed by way of infrastructure for more participatory democracy – but now, a slew of thank-you’s are in order.

II. Thank-You’s

First, the PPF team and I would like to thank the Sunlight Foundation, particularly its co-founder and executive director Ellen Miller. Thank you for supporting our development and maintenance over the past seven years, for all the open-government networking you facilitated, and for initially investing in our vision of a user-friendly website to track bills and money in Congress. Ellen, thank you very much.

OpenCongress would not have existed as it has over these years without the spark of well-regarded Sunlight Advisors Micah Sifry and Andrew Rasiej of Personal Democracy Media in NYC. They helped initially bring PPF’s OC proposal to Ellen and her founding staff, and along the way have offered generous introductions and insightful strategy advice. Micah and Andrew, thanks!

Thanks as well to the entire Sunlight Labs team and its directors over the years: Greg Elin, Clay Johnson, and now Tom Lee, creating valuable open-data cornucopias. I’m pleased that Sunlight will continue to grow OpenCongress as an open-source, open-data resource, and to follow what you do with it.

Thank you to our open data partners, starting with Dr. Joshua Tauberer of GovTrack.us , which provided the open government data that underlies OpenCongress since the beginning – though now check out the awesome new UnitedStates organization on GitHub, which will pipe in the data from THOMAS and elsewhere to OC going forward. Thank you very much for your important longstanding #opendata community work, Josh. Thank you to Sheila and the Center for Responsive Politics team behind OpenSecrets.org , the vital money-in-politics resource; Dan Newman and the MapLight team, for value-added money-in-politics analysis; and all the open-source volunteers who submitted bugs and code and ideas.

Thank you to PPF’s past staffers who worked on OC: Andy Ross, our lead programmer since 2006 (more on him below); Donny Shaw, our blogger and outreach coordinator (same); Morgan Knutson, our OC designer, now pushing design things forward with Dropbox; Carl Tashian, our director of technology from 2009-2011, now heading up a cool startup, Yerdle; David Shettler, an early Rails programmer; Avelino Maestas, one of our first community managers and especially Conor Kenny, the brains and tech behind the OC Wiki (previously Congresspedia) and RaceTracker collaboration with dKos Elections, which listed cited candidates for every congressional district and state gubernatorial election. Thanks to volunteers such as Doug Cole, Pablilo Jose, Dan Pfeiffer, Edmund Wu’s design help, Josh and Brian with Collective Ray design and other developers (and PPF interns) who helped keep OC running and responsive over the years.

For my friend Donny Shaw , who wrote thousands of libre-licensed and well-researched and extensively-cited posts on the OC blog since 2006 – one of the major reasons we conceived of OpenCongress back in 2004, and built it in 2006, was to bring together information about campaign contributions and legislative actions on the same web page. To make it one-click or less to get from a roll call vote to that members’ major campaign contributions, to connect the dot and show the pervasive influence of money on the legislative process. Thanks to Donny for continually revealing to the world not just what’s really happening in Congress, not just what’s hot and trending on OC, but the entrenched committee structures and campaign donations from lobbyists that define the boundaries of the permissible in Congress and prevent reforms from advancing. He’s done incredible work in making the arcane, closed-off workings of Congress more accessible. Donny’s now writing for MapLight , follow his great public-benefit research.

Most of all, thank you to my good friend Andy Ross , OC tech lead since the very beginning, for being the one person most responsible for OC’s existence – all while being guitarist for the band OK Go (among other projects), playing stadium shows or filming historic viral videos – and then squashing bugs or fixing scrapers or tweaking servers or deploying code to OC. The 69 million pageviews of OpenCongress to date are a testament to Andy’s immense dedication to building public knowledge about Congress in open-source code and are a credit to his incredibly hard work. We never really did much to foreground our staff over the years, so not many people might realize that Andy was the tech behind OC while he was shredding on stages around the world – follow him on Twitter to catch his new adventures and dash him a thank-you note. Thank you buddy.

Big open web regards to the three PPF co-founders who originally conceived of OpenCongress, and who now helm our two amazing sibling nonprofits: PPF President Tiffiniy Cheng, co-director of Fight For the Future , which organized the largest-ever online protest with Internet Censorship Day; Nicholas Reville, executive director of the Participatory Culture Foundation and Holmes Wilson, co-director of Fight For the Future. More innovative open-government projects yet to come from our PPF team, but now our focus is on AskThem - like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter.

Last, thank you to all the micro-donors who supported our nonprofit, public benefit project with donations. If you appreciated our work on OpenCongress over the past seven years, and believe in our mission of open Web tools for engaging with government, like our new PPF Facebook page – and please make a donation now to PPF. Your gift is tax exempt and goes directly towards helping our tiny nonprofit team launch AskThem, for public accountability and online dialogue with the people who represent you.

III. Abbreviated History of OpenCongress, 2007-present

The first version of OpenCongress in 2007 uniquely combined official government information with news and blog coverage, campaign contribution data, public comment forums and a daily blog covering “what’s really happening in Congress.”

For the first time, site visitors could see the specific bills that were most-viewed by other users or most-discussed in news stories. Bill pages on OpenCongress displayed full text and official status in a user-friendly, searchable interface, offering a contemporary web experience for sharing and discussing legislation. Crucially, pages for members of Congress displayed campaign contribution data directly next to votes and media coverage. The horizontal bill status bar we designed, to clearly indicate a legislative item’s position in the bill-to-law process, has been widely-disseminated as a libre graphic on other government transparency projects.

In 2007-2008, OpenCongress integrated member biographical data, extensive user-generated content and wiki community projects from the former Congresspedia. We also unveiled free site widgets, video of congressional activity and more features (such as “Bill Battle”) to see what was hot on OpenCongress. Our editorially-curated section of Major Bills by Issue Area helped separate the signal from the noise and helped visitors find the bills they sought by more colloquial terms – e.g., “the health care bill”, “the unemployment extension bill.” As traffic grew, the site was used every day by thousands of political bloggers, issue-group members, citizen watchdogs and legal researchers. Today, OC has nearly 12,000 Facebook likes and over 14,000 Twitter followers, social media accounts which will now be operated by Sunlight.

The second version of OC, in 2008, allowed users to create free “ My OpenCongress” personal profiles and offered a free social network for what bills and votes people were tracking in Congress. New features also allowed users, for what we believe may have been the first time in an open-source web app, to publicly comment on and share permalinks to any specific section of bill text. This work on citizen input on legislative text is being carried forward by a number of nonprofit allies, such as Project MADISON, for collaborative bill drafting. OC’s open data API, free bill and issue widgets and open-source wiki received tens of millions of automated requests for government data every month.

The third version of OC (OCv3), launched in 2011, was composed of two major features: Contact-Congress, a unique open-source tool for e-mailing messages to congressional webforms and MyOC Groups, forums where distributed online communities could track bills, discuss issue positions and share links. Contact-Congress was powered by PPF’s open-source “Formaggedon” software, enabling users to email Congress directly, without a third party service, by returning the webform ‘captcha’ to the user as part of the sending process. PPF’s open-source Formaggedon code library and Rails plugin and user-interface has been actively continued by Sunlight as an open-source project for digital communications to congressional offices. Now, a MyOC Group could take a public stance on a piece of legislation and enable their members to click a button and go directly to a form where they first find their representatives and then send them a note, in support or opposition or simply tracking a bill.

I’m particularly proud of the Contact-Congress message builder we developed to automatically drag-and-drop relevant information from OC into congressional communication, e.g. “92% of OpenCongress users oppose this bill,” or “we know that this bill is supported by the Chamber of Commerce and we are tracking your vote using OpenCongress.” One difference between PPF’s Formaggedon and commercial solutions is that our open-source code generated open data for the public commons, for interoperable sharing of information about constituent feedback to Congress and opinion about bills and issues.

In the previous 112th U.S. Congress alone, OC received 12.3 million views of bill pages; users tracked more than 30,000 bills with free personal accounts; left 9,000 comments on bill pages and submitted more than 67,000 personal votes “aye” or “nay” on bills. In addition, since July 2011, OpenCongress delivered over 250,000 user emails to members of Congress via PPF’s open-source Formaggedon tools, receiving over 140,000 automated or custom email replies to users from Congressional offices.

Over the past seven years, OpenCongress has averaged four million visits per year and 11 million pageviews – a whopping number for a nonprofit web app. In a sample month, September 2009, OC received 867,913 pageviews. At peak times, OpenCongress received over one million visits per month ::

  • Health care reform debate – for which OpenCongress manually formatted an HTML version of draft legislation from closed-off .pdf’s, for public comment

  • Financial regulation debate – a hot topic among OpenCongress users, breaking up the big banks

  • Unemployment extension insurance – as documented by Micah Sifry in his July 2010 article, “How the Internet Organizes the Unemployed”

  • More recently, in my single proudest example of OpenCongress’ impact, OC served a key role in the coalition to stop the SOPA/PIPA net censorship bills. In a July 2013 studyof the “ networked public sphere”, Prof. Yochai Benkler of Harvard and colleagues analyzed the stop-SOPA movement and wrote, “…the three most important ‘newcomers’ to the maps during these weeks were Wikipedia, Fight for the Future (FftF), and OpenCongress.”

  • Over the years, OpenCongress received thousands of links from major media sources, including The New York Times, CNN, Salon, PBS and Ezra Klein of the Washington Post, as well as hundreds of smaller political blogs and many others.

It’s been inspirational to watch more interactive and creative journalism grow around Congress in the past seven years – from the Daily Show’s “Better Know a District” segment, to “All In with Chris Hayes” on MSNBC’s segments on “These Are The People Who Are Running The Country,” to the Washington Post’s Wonkblog and Talking Points Memo’s and others’ excellent Hill coverage and political blogging. Many many more examples come to mind, from startups such as Newsbound and the entire Code For America apps and community, to FiveThirtyEight’s ascendance in the press to robust Interactive News divisions at major media outlets. Much of this was not the case back in 2006, which constitutes significant progress – but now I believe we need more open-source tools to make quality journalism about Congress more directly actionable. More ideas to come on that front in the future on our PPF Blog.

IV. Signoff

Thank you to everyone working to make Congress more publicly accountable – through high community standards of transparency, comprehensive electoral reforms, independent re-districting, strong ethics reforms and, most of all, strong public financing of elections.

Now, to help change the civic culture to ask more and better questions of people in power, sign up for AskThem.

David Moore

Executive Director, PPF

david@ppolitics.org

https://twitter.com/ppolitics

https://www.facebook.com/participatorypolitics

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