Tuesday, April 14, 2009

OpenCongress: Limitations and Reviews

I am sure that with all of the positive relays I have been sending out about OpenCongress over the past week you may have been wondering to yourself, "Now, is The General simply a PR person for OpenCongress?" The answer to that question is, "Of course not, because when a historian evaluates a source, whether that source is a document, photograph, video, or a widget, he must at one time praise its successes and at another, criticize its shortcomings." You may be wondering to yourself, "With a content streaming source that is unbiased, transparent, and free what could possibly be wrong with OpenCongress?" To you I provide three criteria: 1) awareness, 2) lack of sources, and 3) lack of tool sophistication.

Here I define awareness as the measure of the knowledge or understanding of OpenCongress. OpenCongress, while particularly useful for historians and political scientists, is nearly void of any incentive for the average American to use. Instead, OpenCongress acts as an information provider for academics in the field, which is not OpenCongress' stated purpose. OpenCongress was designed to build tools to "facilitate citizen involvement." Now, while historians and political scientists may be citizens, the involvement factor, hereto, the awareness factor is seriously lacking.

OpenCongress relies heavily on the content streaming source known as THOMAS, which is the official Congressional information database. Now think of the irony here. OpenCongress, a site dedicated to Congressional transparency, is obtaining nearly all of its information regarding Congress from an official Congressional database, controlled by Congressmen. Could there possibly be a problem with that? Of course! Say, California Senator Barbara Boxer decides that she no longer wants to display certain interest group participation from her campaign contributions because it may link her to controversial associations, she can simply deny THOMAS the information, in turn denying OpenCongress, in turn denying the citizen's "congressional transparency."

Lastly, the lack of tool sophistication is a problem for any user because it limits the amount of information you can have readily available without trying every single possible combination. For example, the bill issue widget is really only a simple content streamer of five different categories including different background and text colors and the bill title. Instead of having coverage of different aspects of the bill, such as the interest groups that support it and the representatives that have expressed opinions about it, you simply get the bill's name, who introduced it, where it is in the process, and its voting record. It provides very little in the form of identifying key political trends or deviations.

The criteria that I established for examining OpenCongress' limitations is in no way fool proof or exhaustive. I found that these criteria were the most lacking and most surprising (in ironical terms) for the purpose of fulfilling OpenCongress' mission of "facilitating citizen involvement" through "congressional transparency." While OpenCongress does have its shortfalls, allow me to briefly contextualize its importance. OpenCongress does offer academics and some citizens, to an easy interface (much easier and much more eye catching than THOMAS), opinion through blog postings, and most importantly fun and informational tools. In closing, OpenCongress has been a valuable source for my understanding of Congressional trends and deviations, yet it does have some limitations, which, like any historian, should be criticized and evaluated alongside its successes.

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