Launch Day Round-Up

It’s been a fulfilling launch day for all of us at OpenGovernment — thanks to everyone who checked us out & helped spread the word. We build this site as a public resource, and are continually tweaking it in response to your feedback and actual usage patterns, so please don’t hesitate to hit us with your opinion. We’re interested and input from one person can have an impact to make the site a better tool for everyone. (That said, there is a lot we have planned to come, too, about which more below.)

Today’s launch received a nice wave of reactions on the leading micro-blogging service. To highlight a few: Alex Howard of O’Reilly Media (the wide-ranging @digiphile); Nick Judd of TechPresident; plus the blog post announcement from Ellen Miller, the Executive Director of our remarkable partners, the Sunlight Foundation; and another by Tom Lee, the Director of Sunlight Labs. This is as good a time as any to remind everyone reading to check out the community-driven Open States project, the data from which will form the legislative backbone of OpenGovernment for all 50 states.

Let’s ease further into the Round-Up with a bit of unfortunate comic relief, in the form of an actual bill page from the Louisiana legislature‘s site in the year 2011:

… compare with the exact same bill page on OpenGovernment, which in addition to aggregating a lot more relevant data sources, looks a bit more intelligible & empowering we believe:

… if you’re so inclined, or a glutton for punishment, pick a state-level government webpage at random — for a bill or subcommittee or roll call — and the results will likely be similar. It’s straight up Windows 95 out there. It becomes clear why (well, for many reasons, including misplaced resource allocation & the vagaries of tech adoption) official state legislative websites in the U.S. aren’t exactly buzzing hubs of public scrutiny, or routinely recognized for their effective citizen watchdogging activity — most of them haven’t been baseline accessible enough to support an engaged community (much less compliant with open technical standards & best practices). I couldn’t have put it any better than this Twitter update from my colleague Donny at OpenCongress (in fact, if you’re reading this, please RT the above, as I think it’s important looking ahead).

We’re still spreading the word and conducting outreach around this beta version of the site, and technically it’s only been live for about 9 hours, but with those caveats, it’s not too early to point out that the OpenGovernment web application is already generating unique info, in the form of the most-viewed bills & members (so far). If one thinks back to 2004, when we first conceived of the OpenCongress model of gov’t transparency, what is now commonplace “Web 2.0″ / “voting-up” / “filtering-up” lists of the most-popular & most-relevant content was more or less entirely unaddressed in the realm of Congressional legislation. (So were RSS feeds, social sharing icons, permalinks [!!], bulk data access to THOMAS, and a real-time API … the Library of Congress has at least made progress on the first three, but unbelievably, we’re still missing the latter two, even in an era of burgeoning — ostensibly — #opengov technology. Don’t even get me started on the baffling ordeal that is bill-to-issue mapping in federal legislation by the CRS.) As I mentioned in my previous post here today, this mind-boggingly-sub-optimal status quo still obtains today in state legislatures — the under-scrutinized Senates & Houses & Assemblys across the country, whose day-to-day work remains so closed-off from meaningful public oversight.

So, to wrap up today, check out the lists of most-viewed bills in three of our beta-version states:

- California

- Maryland

- Texas

(Louisiana is excused because its legislature doesn’t convene until April, and Wisconsin temporarily because its most-recent bills still need to achieve a bit more momentum in the pageview count dep’t.) In fact, as of this earliest writing, the most-viewed bill on OpenGovernment appears to be #CAbill #AB89, “An act to add Section 7503.5 to the Government Code, relating to retirement”, with a 20 views (hey, we gotta start somewhere):

… which, one can learn from the .pdf of its full text on that page, “This bill would specify that, notwithstanding any other law, for the purposes of determining a retirement benefit paid to a person who first becomes a member of a public retirement system on or after January 1, 2012, the maximum salary, compensation, or payrate upon which retirement benefits shall be based shall not exceed an amount set forth in a specified provision of the Internal Revenue Code.” Going forward, OpenGovernment will aggregate even more useful real-world context from news & blog coverage for this and other bills that are most-viewed and pegged as “key votes” by the non-partisan Project VoteSmart. More than only blog buzz, OG also brings together, wherever such info is publicly available somewhere on the web to find and curate, the following vital additional info: campaign donations given by special interest groups supporting & opposing this bill, videos of floor speeches or legislator interviews about it, collaborative wiki analysis of its full bill text, and what various issue-based groups are saying about it. Our vision on OG is to provide a comprehensive overview of the bill in robust context, accompanied by suites of free tools to track its status and then organize your online or “IRL” community around it at inflection points in its lifespan. Or, to quote myself in the above-linked piece on O’Reilly Radar, “We’re providing a concentrated activity stream that offers a more calibrated way of staying in touch with state government.”

Rest assured, by the way, that our development roadmap calls for us to build a site-wide version of what we offer on OpenCongress for the most-viewed bills list, our editorially-assigned hot bills by issue area, and the one-of-a-kind Battle Royale forum of what’s hot with our users (bills, members, and issues). Certainly, then, OG site visitors will someday soon be able to compare the most-viewed bills in all states supported on our site, and this information will also be available to the public commons via open standard of RSS feeds, and a free API. Take a quick peek at the most-tracked bills by the OpenCongress user community so far this session and you’ll see one view of what I mean.. there’s a whole constellation of data out there to be structured & published & remixed & cited & studied. Along these lines, list of our most-viewed issues, special interest groups, videos, bill texts, and businesses giving campaign contributions are all in the works on OG, you name it and we want to build it.

Such a unique feed of “most-viewed” state-level bills nationwide would/will be valuable to issue-based advocates who find themselves “siloed” in their state — say, for reasons of limited resources for research, or brute restrictions in searching & parsing such awfully un-standardized data. Someday soon, activists of all backgrounds may newly be able to compare specific sections of bill text provisions in related bills across state lines. Or better yet, algorithms could suggest affinities automatically, and crowdsourced revision control of bill text from, oh, California bills, to, say, bills in Texas could create that much-sought-after synergy. Our as-of-now-hypothetical-feed would surely also be of compelling interest to legislators themselves and their staffs in understanding what types of information people are searching for and finding on OpenGovernment.

(As of this writing, you’d have a hard time convincing me that many state assemblymembers receive a briefing each morning of their website analytics, complete with key search terms from their districts and up-voted lists of questions/issues to address from tens of thousands of their constituents. And yet such a use case has been perfectly achievable given last decade’s technology, and occurs as a matter of course in commercial realms. Social networking services likely know exponentially more about you and the issues you care about than do your elected officials, to hammer on a cliche point, and one of the main reasons for this sobering state of society is that the .gov & #opengov communities aren’t yet devoting resources to building web services as responsive & user-friendly as, for example, Facebook.)

No other open-source, not-for-profit site (of which we’re aware) offers such “most-viewed info in state-level legislation” nationally (or internationally), but with today’s launch of OG, we’re finally building up the platform to deliver it. Won’t that be useful, when it exists? (Won’t it be nice for me to not have to manually compile it on occasion, but rather for it to be generated automatically, and delivered to you effortlessly to enhance your understanding of what’s happening in the cloak rooms of your state capitol?)

The thing is, we could build it this week — say, by this Friday — if we had sufficient resources for our open-source web development. This is just one of dozens of straightforward features & planned enhancements we have mentioned on our publicly-documented wish list. It already exists, in somewhat comparable code, over on OpenCongress, where our pages of most-viewed information are themselves some of the most-viewed on the site… so clearly, we’ve got the ability to nail this. As it is, our small team (the equivalent of four full-time folks) is working hard to keep this beta version of OpenGovernment up and running. See how you can help us scale up our capacity to build out OG, and please download and circulate our non-profit funding prospectus (in .pdf) to help us build more amazing tools on OpenGovernment in freely-licensed, clearly-documented Ruby on Rails web code.

This is truly the tip of the iceberg for all the ambitious work we have in mind (and hopefully in store) for OG — increasing our RSS feed offerings and building a vast & open API being foremost among them — with lots more ideas available to discuss, go ahead and contact us anytime.

Want to chat more about the OG that launched today? Join our G-Group and let us know what you think of what you’ve seen so far. More to come, we won’t stop until we’ve rolled out to all 50 states and beyond. To close, one more head-to-head screenshot, of vote results on Louisiana:

… vs. the same info on OG, feat. our customized data viz of vote info, which we believe to be the most at-a-glance display of a vote outcome we’ve found for bills at the state level:

… you’re invited to dive in, see what we have, where we’re going, and help us grow.

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