Open Congress

I’ve been waiting for quite some time to see Open Congress in action, so it was a little frustrating that various commitments mean it’s taken a few days to really explore it.

The site gets much of its data from govtrack.us, but provides a more intuitive interface. The index of what’s going on in the US Congress can be explored in a variety of ways, going through bills, senators, representatives, committees, industries, and issues. The senator and representative navigation works pretty well, and its nice to have a feed for each one, but it would also be good to be able to navigate using a map or other visual device rather than having to switch to the state view and then scroll down to find the representative I’m interested in.

There’s integration with technorati to pick up blog chatter around given bills, and a ‘contact all sponsors’ feature is on its way which could be a nice feature for those looking to take action on specific bills.

Categorization by issue was always going to be the hardest thing to cover. According to the site:

These issue areas were created and assigned by the Congressional Research Service, a government agency created by Congress to provide non-partisan research. With over 4,000 issue areas to browse here on OpenCongress, there are lots of ways to connect a general issue you care about to a specific bill in Congress.

Which does help with navigation, but it would be good if there were more ways for those using the site to contribute to that categorisation and I tend to agree with Jon Lebkowsky when he says (in a review of BillHop) that:

I think we need an AI engine for analyzing legislation, facilitating that zeroing in on issues I mentioned above, and it would be great to see a budget simulator on the site

Beyond that, what I’d really love to see someone put together is a US politics site that shows how issues move up and down through the levels of government and how they move across its different branches. Few issues are ever fully addressed by just the federal government and for concerned citizens (or even just residents, like me) to be able to see where the issues they care about lie in a holistic way would be very powerful.

Maybe if enough government-related sites use open data and clean APIs we’ll eventually see that become an easy mashup to produce? In the meantime, Open Congress is a very nice addition to the range of open government web applications available in the US.

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