Tuesday, April 7, 2009

OpenCongress: The Historian's Alternative to the Arcane

Have you ever felt that the Congressional legislative process is largely closed-off from timely and meaningful public input? Have you ever wondered why the convoluted process where bills become laws is notoriously arcane and virtually impossible to follow? For most people, finding out what is really happening in our democratically-elected Congress is a difficult and discouraging task. While cruising the Web 2.0 tools of the future I came across a uniquely solid piece of scholarship and conventional political tool. OpenCongress, a free, non-partisan, non-profit, open-source, transparent Web 2.0 software taps into the valuable social wisdom of political scientists, historians, citizen journalists, and academics to clear away the sticky mire of Congressional business and place it in the hands of citizens.

OpenCongress was developed by The Participatory Politics Foundation (PPF) and the The Sunlight Foundation with the goal to use the
"revolutionary power of the Internet and new information technology to enable citizens to learn more about what Congress and their elected representatives are doing."
The two groups seek to build software tools to enable continual government participation by citizens because while
"voting is important, we have a chance to go further and create a political process that is meritocratic, creative, and participatory."
OpenCongress is also a partnered with the Open House Project, a working group designed to make recommendations to Congress on ways to begin the process of opening up the House of Representatives and increasing government transparency.

The initial phase of OpenCongress has focused on bringing together government data, blog and press coverage, and non-profit analysis into a comprehensive snapshot of every congressional bill. However, to truly bring together the average citizen to the immense information network of the nation's capital OpenCongress has instituted a variety of productivity tools to enhance the interactivity and engagement with the Congressional process. Action Calendars, a tool to keep track of scheduling and voting of certain bills, will help citizens keep in contact with their representatives during the most important time in a bill's creation or destruction.

You may be wondering where all this information comes from and how that information is so readily accessible. OpenCongress uses data provided by GovTrack.us, which collects data from official government websites, such as THOMAS, through daily automated processes. THOMAS is a database of legislative information, started in 1995 THOMAS includes information on scheduling of bills, voting results, the Congressional record, and information on treaties and nominations of public officials. OpenCongress also uses RSS feeds from Google News and Daylife, as well as from Google Blog Search and Technorati to obtain blog information to update OpenCongress' news page. OpenCongress further uses campaign contribution information provided by the Center for Responsive Politics and their sister website Open Secrets. Finally, OpenCongress automatically brings in video coverage of Members of Congress from Metavid and the YouTube Senate Hub and House Hub.

OpenCongress is a powerful, innovative resource for answering your most puzzling questions about the Congressional process. Which bills have the most money riding on them? Which bills affect the issues you care about? Congressional information rarely makes its way out of the Beltway and into our daily lives, but OpenCongress provides part of the means to lead us in that direction.

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