Open government advocates seek greater access to congressional data

Monday - 4/16/2012, 11:26am EDT

Daniel Schuman, policy counsel, Sunlight Foundation

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The Library of Congress' Thomas.gov is an elder statesman among websites.

While it's lost ground to competitors that keep tabs on Congress in easier-to-use formats, librarians and open government advocates say there's still a role for Thomas

"It's really 17 years old and looks it," said Sunlight Foundation Policy Counsel Daniel Schuman, who is leading the campaign to improve the site.

"It provides basic information about what's going on in Congress, but there's a lot of different aspects of the information that people are looking for that's simply not available there," he said.

Schuman told The Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp that Congress itself is frustrated with the website and has it's own internal work-around.

"If you go online and try to type in 'Congress.gov,' it doesn't take you anyplace," Schuman said. "But if you're on the Hill and you type 'Congress.gov,' it takes you to the internal Congress website which is actually better than the site we have access to."

He stressed that the open government effort isn't just about building better websites, but actually making the data more readily available for people to use.

Daniel Schuman, policy counsel, Sunlight Foundation

"When you do that, you can do all sorts of really interesting things," Schuman said. For example, Sunlight has a mobile app that provides much of the same legislative information available on Thomas.

The programmers who built Sunlight's app used data scraping to reverse-engineer the database that Thomas published. The process, however, is slow and not everyone possesses the skills to data scrape the information.

"When you download the data this kind of way, errors can creep into the process," Schuman said. "It's like making a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy."

Ultimately, the mission of the Library of Congress is to make this information available to the American people. One of the best ways to do that is to make the underlying data available so that anyone who has some technological skill can build whatever website or app they want.

"Right now, everybody's relying on third parties that go and grab this information," Schuman said. "To access the basic information about our democracy, it should be coming primarily from the Library of Congress."

If the data is made available, the public could do a number of things with it, such as tracking the way a bill has changed over time.

"Some of the third-party websites have been able to do this to some extent, but this would be much more reliable with Thomas data," Schuman said.

Congress is already doing much of the work necessary by creating the data in an .xml format.

"You can actually see how legislation is structured, how bills relate to each other. All this stuff is available, but what's happening is all that useful information is being stripped out before it's made available to the public," Schuman said.

All the open government advocates are asking for is access to those .xml files as a first step.

"The Library of Congress response has been 'We will do this when we're told to do this,' even though they've already been told to look into this, even though they already have a mandate to make this information available, they simply haven't done so," Shulman said.