Improve databases

Americans have a growing appetite for information. We want to see things for ourselves directly, and the activities in Congress are no exception. We want to be able to read the text of legislation being debated, track the activity on legislation as it moves forward, watch hearings over the Web and be able to see Congress from new angles.

We’ll need technology to help us find meaning in the information surrounding us, but to do that, Congress should open up its legislative databases to the public. This does not just entail creating a “searchable and sortable” website; the raw information should be made available to be downloaded so that others can transform it into new uses.

We don’t have to look far for examples of transformative applications of legislative information, as independent websites are transforming existing public records into new perspectives. Some examples include the Center for Responsive Politics’s OpenSecrets.org, which provides a searchable database of campaign finance data, and WashingtonWatch.com, which sorts bills by their projected cost.

The ability to transform a database of congressional information into new visual formats and applications is critical because no one view of Congress is useful for everyone. Take a hypothetical citizen who is interested in following legislation about immigration. He or she would need to visit a host of websites to get the facts: one site for the legislation itself, another for voting records, a third, fourth and fifth for committee documents, hearings information and campaign contributions.
Although Citizen Smith cannot do so, computers can sift through every last legislative record and create a customized view tailored to each individual’s needs. Transforming information provides a new perspective, and that in and of itself can be useful.

An authoritative database of legislative information is sorely needed. While OpenSecrets.org draws its information from the downloadable datasets of the Federal Election Commission (FEC), websites like my own, GovTrack.us, are forced to reconstruct databases by “spidering” and “screen-scraping” the bits and pieces of information that can be found on official websites. But, as the names suggest, these methods are of the last resort because they leave gaps and sometimes errors, unbeknownst to the users of the site. For instance, on GovTrack.us, a member of Congress will on occasion be left off of a record of a vote, or bill status information will be out of date.

Providing “structured data” — databases for computers to process, as opposed to searchable websites for people to visit — is not a new concept in our government. Besides the FEC, the Census Bureau and the Securities and Exchange Commission have provided their public datasets in a structured, downloadable format for years, making possible new research and commercial applications — from meshing population statistics with maps, to tracking corporate ownership.

Congress already creates an authoritative database of legislative information. It’s what powers THOMAS, the public website for legislative information, and the private Legislative Information System for members of Congress. THOMAS was launched in 1995 following the last major shift in power in Congress, and it would be fitting if the new leadership this year took THOMAS to the next logical step by making its database directly available to the public. As the database already exists, it is a simple move Congress can make that would send a clear message of taking transparency seriously.


Tauberer is the founder of www.GovTrack.us and the author of the “Legislation Database” chapter of the Open House Project report.