Learning from #Hack4Congress

Photo credit: Yum9me

The Tuesday, May 12 #Hack4Congress awards ceremony at the House of Representatives’ majestic Judiciary Committee hearing room was the culmination of a 6 month long effort to engage technologically savvy members of the public with making Congress more open and efficient. The three winners of congressional data hackathons in CambridgeSan Francisco, and Washington, D.C. presented their projects to three members of Congress, a bipartisan array of senior congressional staff, and a packed gallery filled with journalists, advocates, staff, academics, and others.

The #Hack4Congress panel of experts.

More than 620 people and 16 members of Congress participated over the course of the hackathons, events where policy wonks and technologists who had not previously met developed web tools to address perceived problems with the way Congress works. Participants were challenged to address problems — and were provided suggested topics by members of Congress and non-governmental groups like us — in one of the following five categories.

  1. Improving the Lawmaking Process
  2. Facilitating Cross-Partisan Dialogue
  3. Modernizing Congressional Participation
  4. Closing the Representation and Trust Gaps
  5. Reforming Campaign Finance

Each of the three winning projects performed an extraordinary amount of work over a short period of time. It is worth checking out the presentations from the winning teams — CDash, CoalitionBuilder, CongressConnect — which are summarized here. To see a demonstration of the projects, watch this video from the awards ceremony.

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Several themes emerged from the regional hackathons and awards ceremony.

First, the hackathons illustrated the significant public enthusiasm for using technology to make Congress work better. This enthusiasm for the development of congressional civictech, to use the in-vogue buzzword, should be no surprise to anyone who watches this space closely. The unique levels of complexity and institutional challenges that arise in the federal legislature have long served as a crucible for development of new technologies inside and outside government. Over the last half-decade in particular, the House of Representatives has leaped forward, and the Senate and legislative support agencies have followed, in efforts to make more data available in civic friendly formats, prompted in part by the work of our coalition.

Second, while there’s a lot of talk about state and local governments as civictech innovators, the greatest improvements in public access to information still arise from work done at the federal level. The 2009 Stimulus Act forced the states for the first time to track federal spending, which was then reported on a federal website. Federal civictech websites like GovTrack have served as a model for the updates to THOMAS (now Congress.gov) and the development of legislative information websites in the various states and around the world. The DATA Act will cause the creation of unique identifiers to track the flow of nearly all federal funds. And funding for the Government Publishing Office and its primary website FdSys effects local access to information held at federal depository libraries and online.

Third, even with all the enthusiasm, it was apparent that many people still do not know where to find federal legislative information. That’s no surprise. Publishing of congressional information developed organically, in fits and starts, in different places through the bureaucracy. It was not systematic because it had never been done before. Only in the last few years with the development of docs.house.gov,rules.house.gov, and non-governmental sites like the GitHub United States projectpage, has there been some effort to catalog and publish data in a few central locations. Most people, however, are unaware of these publishing efforts, and more needs to be done to help civic technologists find and make sense of this data.

Finally, civic technologists would benefit from guidance. Many technologists want to build things are useful, but are not sure what that is. Or they don’t understand how Congress works at a significant level of detail. Or they want to build something but don’t realize it already exists. This is where our community can help. We can connect policy experts with civic developers. We can build online resource that identify thetools that exist and data sources, list ideas for what should be built, and help people get connected into the broader community.

The OpenGov Foundation, the Ash Center at Harvard, and their civic tech partners should be applauded for hosting an incredibly successful series of events. They dovetail perfectly with the great work the House of Representatives is doing, as showcased at the recent Legislative Data and Transparency Conference. We hope there will be another formal #Hack4Congress next year and we look forward to participating.

{ Liked this? You may also like Legislative Project Ideas for Coders and Non-Coders and Electronic Toolbox for Congress }

— Written by Daniel Schuman

Legislative Project Ideas for Coders and Non-Coders

I thought it would be useful to identify legislative data projects in advance of the House’s annual Legislative Data and Transparency Conference and #Hack4Congress, a congressional hackathon we are co-hosting with our friends the OpenGov Foundation. I have written about some ideas previously, and others are newly published or elaborations. Not all are mine, but I like them all.

{Update: a bunch more ideas are available here.}

Requiring tech savvy

  • A robust roll-call vote comparison tool (more: see vote comparison tool)
  • An easy-but-smart search of the Congressional Record for member statements on a topic (more: see congressional record search)
  • A customizable daily or weekly email with all congressional hearings and floor votes, including committees and subcommittees, which at a click of a button would be added to your calendar (more: see open up draft legislation; also GovTrack’s webpage)
  • Congressional Research Service: CRS Report freshness ratings (more)
  • Congressional Research Service: One-stop source for Congressional Research Service reports (portal to search web) (more)
  • Congressional Research Service: Build a tool that allows congressional offices to receive requests to publish CRS reports and to host the publication of those reports; bonus if it allows the Member office to publish a list of all reports that a constituent/the public could request
  • A means to transform draft (pre-introduction) bills from PDF to a format that supports easy comparison, markup, and public discussion (more: see open up draft legislation)
  • A user-friendly webpage for the federal law website LegisLink (more: see federal law online)
  • Build a dashboard that reports on all House and Senate personal and committee websites that indicates whether they are SSL (HTTPS) compliant
  • Expand Capitol Bells to the Senate (see: Ted Henderson about Capitol Bells)
  • Build a Congressional Correspondence Tracker that allows Member offices to track all communications, automatically publish and thread letters and responses to the public (with redactions as appropriate)
  • Transform the Congressional Record into structured data
  • Transform the Constitution Annotated into structured data (pull it out of PDFs) (more: see public the Constitution Annotated as data)
  • Transform the entirety of House and Senate expenditure reports into structured data (CSVs) (more: see Sunlight blogpost and 1-pager)

For everyone (coders and non-coders)

  • Transform the Rules of the House of Representatives from PDF to TXT (or DOCX); ideally set up to reflect the organization of the document (e.g. indentations) (more: House Rules)
  • Transform the Rules of the Senate from HTML to something with proper indentations
  • Transform House and Senate Committee Rules from PDFs to TXT (or DOCX); ideally set up to reflect the organization of the document (e.g. indentations) (see: Rules of the Senate)
  • Build a wiki that links to or contains all the non-PDF versions of Chamber and Committee Rules (more: House committeesSenate committees)
  • Check House and Senate Committee websites to see if they work as HTTPS and compile as a list on a wiki (make a table)

{ Liked this? You may also like Learning from #Hack4Congress and Electronic Toolbox for Congress }

— Written by Daniel Schuman

Electronic Toolbox for Congress

Here is a rundown of free digital tools any self-respecting congressional staffer, Member of Congress, journalist, or public advocate should consider using. All are free, run on information published by Congress or cobbled together from official sources, and most are built on open source code. (Many of the developers are members of the Congressional Data Coalition.)

{ Update: A more complete list of tools is here }

Committee Meeting Calendar

While you could pay $1000 annually to subscribe to a daily calendar of committee hearings, GovTrack publishes an automatically-updated calendarthat lists all hearings and meetings in the House in Senate at no cost to you. Alternatively, subscribe to GovTrack’s alerts, which tracks particular committees and bills.

Follow House Floor Action

The app Capitol Bells tells you whenever there is a House floor vote and provides essential context (such as what the vote is on). Used by more than half the Members of the House, it’s an essential tool to keep an eye on the floor.

Google Alerts for Government (but not Google)

The Sunlight Foundation’s alert tool Scout is the most powerful way to be alerted to government actions. It sends email alerts based on your keywords for federal and state legislation, federal regulations, floor speeches, GAO Reports, IG reports, and some federal court opinions. It’s like having a staff of well-payed research assistants constantly hitting refresh on dozens of congressional websites.

Collaboratively Write the Bill

Public input on legislation is often useful but only with the recent launch of Madison is there a free tool that allows broad public engagement while retaining control of the document. Built by the OpenGov Foundation, it is open source and used by Congress and the White House.

Read the Bill

While Congress’ redesign of its legislative information system has brought many needed improvements, it still lacks a lot of important contextual information. GovTrack has provided legislative information for a decade and should be your first stop. If you’re interested in the cost of legislation, Jim Harper’s WashingtonWatch is the place to go.

Read the Law

Until this past year, there was no single free online source for all bills signed into law. But now you can look up and read public laws to your heart’s content by going to Legislink. Of course, if you want to read the US Code, there’s the Office of Law Revision Counsel’s official website as well as the longstanding champion of public access to legal information, Cornell’s LII. (Cornell has a ton of other stuff, having been in the business of free online access to law since the early 90s, before everyone else).

Congressional Staff Directory

You might guess Congress publishes a staff directory with the names of staffers and their areas of responsibility, but only private sector sources are available. Fortunately, thanks to the hard work of the Sunlight Foundation, the website FindTheBest has a searchable directory of House and Senate staffers. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty good (especially since it’s free). Sunlight has a downloadable version of the House information, too.

Inspector General Reports

Until very recently, it was impossible to find all the publicly available IG reports in one place. Thanks to the hard work of many volunteers, you can search IG reports from 65 offices at oversight.io.

Searchable Press Releases

Still a work in progress, Statementer pulls many congressional press releases into a central website searchable by the title of the release.

House Activities

While not third party apps, two congressional websites are worth their weight in gold. First, docs.house.gov the website docs.house.gov is a powerful source of information about House floor and committee activities. Second, the rules committee website in invaluable to see when a bill is ready to go to the floor (3 legislative days in advance), including any amendments that are offered.

A Few More Tricks

While these technically are not legislative-focused websites, they can be useful in monitoring/accessing information that is not user friendly.

  • ChangeDetection will send you an alert for whenever a webpage has changed. Certain committees have such awful websites that the only way to know what’s new is to get an alert when the page itself changes.
  • The Wayback Machine may be named after a cartoon time machine, but it allows you to see how websites appeared in the past. This is particularly helpful if a site has gone down or its content has changed.
  • Congress has a bad habit of purging congressional websites. But the web harvest, hosted by the Center for Legislative Archives, allows you to see congressional websites going back to 2006.

Final Thoughts

These websites are pretty cool, but there should be more of them. Even with recent progress, Congress and its legislative support agencies need to publish more information and do so in more useful formats. Congress also should enact legislation like the Access to Congressionally Mandated Reports Act, which will make additional troves of information publicly available. There also has to be further developments in how Congress collaborates with the public, whether through hackathons or the use of open source technology, but that is a discussion for another time.

{ Liked this? You may also like Learning from #Hack4Congress and Legislative Project Ideas for Coders and Non-Coders }

— Written by Daniel Schuman

House Passes the Best Leg Branch Approps Bill in 8 Years

On Friday, the House of Representatives passed the best legislative branch appropriations bill since Republicans took power in 2010. Unlike many prior appropriations bills, which often undermined the House’s capacity to govern through deep budget cuts, this legislation contained provisions to strengthen the House and set the stage for further improvements. In addition, it was created in a bipartisan manner, drawing on the hard work of Reps. Kevin Yoder and Tim Ryan and their staff. Continue reading “House Passes the Best Leg Branch Approps Bill in 8 Years”