Report from the 2016 Legislative Data & Transparency Conference

Today the House of Representatives’ Committee on House Administration hosted its fifth annual Legislative Data & Transparency Conference in the U.S. Capitol. The Conference brought together staff from House and Senate and legislative support offices, civil society advocates, technologists, overseas legislatures, and featured a speech by House Speaker Paul Ryan. More than 150 people attended, with more participating online.

There’s too much to recap from the conference — my notes, taken in real-time, are online, as is a video of the proceedings — but this blogpost will focus on the highlights. Once again, the most important aspect of the conference was that it brought together all the internal and external stakeholders to work together, announce progress, celebrate advances, and educate one another. It was a tremendous success.

Speaker Ryan: New Digitization Project

Speaker Ryan addressing the conference. Photo credit: Speaker Ryan’s office.

Speaker Paul Ryan announced a new project to publish enrolled legislation as structured data (in United States Legislative Markup Language). The project encompasses all enrolled bills (the final copies of legislation passed identically by both Houses of Congress), public laws, and statutes at large. In its first phase, all enrolled bills from the 113th Congress forward (i.e. January 2013 forward) and all statutes at large from the 108th Congress forward (January 2003 forward) will be published online in the same structured data format in which the U.S. Code is published.

While this sounds technical, what it does it allow the Congress to begin using more sophisticated tools to manage its legislation, including how it is written and updated. It becomes possible to tell better stories around what has happened with bills enacted into law, including formatting the laws so that one can see how they have changed over time.

It is expected that ultimately all legislation enacted by Congress will become available as structured data. Because much of the federal law is non-codified, this will make it easier to show how the law has evolved over time and reflect the current state of the law at any given time.

In addition to the technical details, Speaker Ryan’s announcement underscored the House’s continued dedication to making important information about legislative activities available online and in formats that support analysis and reuse. It is a doubling-down on the commitment made at the beginning of the Congress, in the House Rules package, to ensure that legislative information is available to the public in structured data formats — to support improving congressional processes and public insight into congressional action.

The Congressional Data Coalition had asked for this improvement, and some member offices have been requesting these changes as well.

Steady Improvements and a New Project from the Bulk Data Task Force

The Bulk Data Task Force Presentation. Photo Credit: Alex Howard

Phone Directory. The House of Representatives has built and will release to the public in August an online telephone directory. Using responsive design, so that it works on mobile devices, the phone directory allows anyone to obtain phone numbers and address information for any House staffer via a cleverly-designed interface. You can sort by member office, committee, or search for a particular staffer.

A screenshot of the new telephone directory website.

It’s also possible to download the underlying data set, whether as a CSV or PDF. This may save the House money on printing directories and provide more up-to-date information, particularly as staff move around all the time. The website was built by the Clerk and is extensible, so it may become possible to include the staff issue areas at a future date.

Congress.gov Data Updates. In response to public requests, the bulk data behind Congress.gov will be updated every four hours so that users can download the most recent data. Coming soon will be an RSS feed that will tell users when the data has been updated, so users known when to run their update processes. This is a change from the once-a-day update, which was discussed at the last Bulk Data Task Force meeting and had created problems for some users. The data updates will also be reflected on the GitHub page so that programmatic users will know specifically which data has changed.

Congress.gov Interface Updates. Congress.gov now has legislative alerts and other new tools (including improving command line and other searches). On July 5th, THOMAS will be retired after 21 1/2 years of service.

Office of Law Revision Counsel. The OLRC had 4 significant updates building on work from last year.

First, it will expand information about non-positive law that’s made available to the public to include XML format, not just PDFs.

Second, the development of Ramseyers — to track changes for legislation reported out of committee — is proceeding and it is expected to be used as part of the legislative process. This goes hand in hand with the Amendment Impact Program, which eventually will be publicly available and will make it possible to see how amendments change bills and bills would change laws in real time.

Third, the legislative lookup and link tool, which provides contextual information about references inside legislation, will become a public tool that everyone can look up on a public website.

Fourth, the OLRC is developing with leg counsel a new/updated legislative markup language to encompass new uses and data types. This is a second generation legislative markup language, of which the first was the Bill DTDs, and will empower many more ways to make sense out of legislative language.

And Still More

Josh Tauberer retelling Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. Photo Credit: Alex Howard.

I don’t want to get too deep into everything else for the sake of brevity. However, I do want to briefly mention:

  • The presentations on the use of mapping (GIS) data, particularly a fascinating presentation by CRS on the different kinds of maps they can generate for congressional staff. Additionally, it’s worth noting how Rep. Takano’s office uses maps to keep track of communications from constituents. The Senate’s GIS working group is of particular interest to anyone who wants to use geographic data to understand policy issues.
  • A great discussion on “consuming the law” which delved deep into when/whether it is possible for leg support offices to move towards focusing on electronic/online publication and moving away from print.
  • There’s much more, including great panels on five hacks for congress, the unfinished (digitization) work of congress, Josh’s excellent Mr. Smith presentation, UK and New Zealand digitization efforts, and the future of legislative publishing.

If you want still more, here are recaps of prior Legislative Data and Transparency Conferences: