Amazing Govtrack Upgrade

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John Wonderlich

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Dec 14, 2008, 5:07:10 PM12/14/08
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I think this is a Really Big Deal.

GovTrack just quietly introduced a suite of new bill viewer features, which I think significantly change the way we're able to read and understand legislation.

You can get a taste for the new features, for example, on the bill text page for the e-gov reauthorization act (S. 2321)

As you scroll down and mouse over the bill text, you can see the individual sections of the bill have been detected and have features new features for each section.  You can now link to individual provisions, collapse and expand them, and extract the text of each provision.  (For example, here's the section on Privacy Impact Assessments.)

In that section, you can try out a feature I'm particularly impressed with: links to the US Code now pop up in a preview window, and link to Cornell's US Code.  This feature takes cumbersome legislative language (strike the text after item b, etc) and makes it easy to quickly see what the bill actually does, by linking to a well developed source for legal info. 

I don't know if this feature uses Cornell's US Code link resolver, but I'm sure it's the sort of interlinking they had in mind when they developed it.  Here's their resolver.

This development really has my mind spinning.

First, I see one of the big tasks of transparency reform as generating meaningful legal context, and linking proposed bills to the laws they interpret is fundamental to that task.

Second, I see the links to individual provisions as equally important.  Online discourse is meaningful in part because it is structured around verification, which is enabled by hyperlinks.  If you can't link to something, it doesn't exist.  Adding links to individual provisions reifies them, allowing them to become linkable, discussable entities.  I don't know if provisions now have URIs, but the task of tracking and sorting individual legislative ideas has now become much simpler.

Third, bravo for adding collapsible sections.  Scrolling can be annoying, especially for enormous bills, and this should significantly help the readability of weird indentations.  Those sections to be pasted into other bills, often delimited by some sort of floating character, are elegantly detected and separated from other sections.  Someone knows how to parse.

I haven't even gotten to the integrated bill comparison tool yet.  Check this out, for example.  Version differences are clearly highlighted.  OReilly's version control system, one step closer to its realization.  I'm a huge fan of version tracking being applied to legisaltion, and I suspect congressional staffers will be too.

Speaking of congressional staff, I wonder if Congress's own tools are as user friendly as this? 

For equal footing, of course, primary data sources like the database behind THOMAS would have to be publicly available for bulk or API access.  Other sources like the Code of Federal Regulations, the Constitution Annotated, or any of the other federal data sources Carl Malamud proposes opening would have to be available.

It's an amazing statement, though, that thet public demand for legislative substance may outstrip the demand of what should be the most hard-core of users: members of Congress themselves.  What else does it mean when tools like OpenCongress.org and GovTrack.us are turning the esoteric world of legislation into something social and downright scrutable?

What will get built when we have the same data Congress does?





*From GovTrack's about page:

Starting in July 2008, several others have contributed to the development of this site. Daniel Gabriele is responsible for the new look and feel. Kevin Henry developed the interactivity on the new bill text display (supported by a Sunlight Foundation grant). Also thanks to Mike Drescher for collecting some images of Members of Congress.

For the record, Josh has no idea I'm writing this, and I didn't know we had made this grant -- I'm just sincerely impressed by what has come of it.



Josh Tauberer

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Dec 14, 2008, 5:35:38 PM12/14/08
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John Wonderlich wrote:
> GovTrack <http://www.govtrack.us/> just quietly introduced a suite of
> new bill viewer features, which I think significantly change the way
> we're able to read and understand legislation.

Well, it wasn't *going* to be quiet. I just haven't gotten around to the
announcements yet. :) At the end of the week I'll be spamming you all
with a list of other updates to the site.

> I don't know if this feature uses Cornell's US Code link resolver, but
> I'm sure it's the sort of interlinking they had in mind when they
> developed it. Here's their resolver

> <http://hula.law.cornell.edu:5151/chapter2/formTwo>.

It doesn't, but it does rely heavily on the work at LII in turning the
US Code in GPO Locator Code format (iirc) into nicely structured XML.
They did a great job with that, and I only knew that those files were
available because of discussion on this list many months ago.

> Second, I see the links to individual provisions as equally important.

I think I owe a hat-tip to Tom Steinberg who first mentioned the idea to
me, and to Sunlight for hosting the gathering during which the idea was
mentioned. And again to Sunlight for, as you mentioned, funding Kevin's
work on this.

--
- Josh Tauberer
- GovTrack.us

http://razor.occams.info

"Yields falsehood when preceded by its quotation! Yields
falsehood when preceded by its quotation!" Achilles to
Tortoise (in "Godel, Escher, Bach" by Douglas Hofstadter)

Amy Alyce Fuller

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Dec 15, 2008, 11:56:02 AM12/15/08
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Hi Josh,

I write the Policy and News Update for OpenTheGovernment.org and, unless you object, I would like to feature some of the amazing updates you have made to GovTrack in our next newsletter. The newsletter will be sent out tomorrow afternoon to about 3,000 subscribers. Please let me know if you would prefer making your own announcement first, or have any other concern.

Thanks,

Amy Fuller
OpenTheGovernment.org
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