Tag: deepbills

Computer-Aided Reporting: Looking Where the Light Is Good

Upshot (New York Times) writer Derek Willis tweeted this morning, “We need to stop doing stories (and maps) with meaningless data.” At the link, a story on Vox charts the poorest members of Congress. It’s based on a Roll Call story published in September.

His main point, I think, is the failure of the data to reliably reflect what it’s supposed to. The disclosures on which these stories rely don’t include the value of homes members own, for example, and information is reported in broad bands, so it’s probably not very accurate and may be wildly inaccurate.

The data is meaningless in another, more important way. Neither story suggests any correlation between wealth (or its absence) and legislators’ behavior or fitness for office. It’s just a look at who has money and who doesn’t—uninformative infotainment. Maybe some readers stack up inferences to draw conclusions about Congress or its members, but this is probably an exercise in confirming one’s biases.

This illustrates a real problem for computer-aided journalism. When the only data available depicts a certain slice of the world, that will skew editorial judgments toward that slice of the world, overweighting its importance in news reporting and commentary.

In my opinion, reporting on public policy suffers just such a skew. There is relatively good data about campaign financing and campaign spending, which makes it easy to report about. The relatively high level of reporting on this area makes it appear more important while the actual behavior of public officials in office—the bills they sponsor, the contents of bills, amendments, votes, and the results for society—goes relatively unreported.

It won’t be the fix for all that ails reporting on public policy, but our Deepbills project makes essential content of legislation available as data. It vastly expands the territory around U.S. federal public policy that computer-aided jounalists can cover. Deepbills data has been picked up various places, but we need more adoption before it will provide all the value it can to a better-informed public.

Update: On Wednesday, the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee will have a hearing on implementation of the DATA Act, which could yet further expand the data available to journalists, and all of us.

Public Oversight of Congress, One Click at a Time

In mid-August, using Cato Deepbills data, the Legal Information Institute at Cornell University started alerting visitors to its U.S. Code pages that the laws these visitors care about may be amended by Congress.

The most visited bills are an interesting smattering of issues.

Getting top clicks is H.R. 570, the American Heroes COLA Act. Would it surprise you to learn that beneficiaries of Social Security’s Old Age, Survivors and Disability Insurance program are looking to see if veterans’ disability compensation will get the same cost-of-living increases? The relevant section of the Social Security Act on the Cornell site points to the bill that would grow veterans’ benefits in tandem with Social Security recipients’.

S. 1859, the Tax Extenders Act of 2013, is the second bill with the most referrals from Cornell. People looking into federal regulation of health insurance—or myriad other statutes—are finding their way to this complex piece of legislation. We know visitors to the Cornell site are legally sophisticated. They just might be able to follow what S. 1859 does.

Immigration is a hot-button issue, and Deepbills links at Cornell such as the code section dealing with reimbursement for detaining aliens are sending people to S. 744, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act.

Another hot-button issue and top source of clicks from Cornell’s site: federal gun control. People looking at gun control law are following links to Senator Dianne Feinstein’s (D-CA) bill to ban assault weapons.

As of Thursday morning, 674 people had clicked 855 times on links to the bills in Congress that affect the laws they’re interested in. Those numbers aren’t going to instantaneously revive public oversight of the government. But usage of these links is rising, and Tom Bruce at Cornell says he plans changes that may increase clicks by 3 to 5 times. He guesses that people see Cato’s sponsorship of the data they can access 20,000 times a day. (“I should have asked you for a penny per impression ;),” he says. Funny guy.)

A lot more people are aware of work Cato is doing to increase government transparency, but, more importantly, a small but growing cadre of people are being made aware of what Congress is doing. This positions them to do something about it. Public oversight of Congress is increasing one click at a time.

Transparency Is Breaking Out All Over!

On Monday, Cato is hosting a briefing on Capitol Hill about congressional Wikipedia editing. Over a recent 90-day period, there were over 400,000 hits on Wikipedia articles about bills pending in Congress. If congressional staff were to contribute more to those articles, the amount of information available to interested members of the public would soar. Data that we produce at Cato go into the “infoboxes” on dozens and dozens of Wikipedia articles about bills in Congress.

A popular Twitter ‘bot called @congressedits recently created a spike in interest about congressional Wikipedia editing. It puts a slight negative spin on the practice because it tracks anonymous edits coming from Hill IP addresses, which are more likely to be inappropriate. But Congress can do a lot of good in this area, so Cato intern Zach Williams built a Twitter ‘bot that shows all edits to articles about pending federal legislation. This should draw attention to the beneficial practice of informing the public before bills become law. Meet @Wikibills!

Also, as of this week, Cato data are helping to inform some 26 million visitors per year to Cornell Law’s Legal Information Institute about what Congress is doing. Thanks to Tom Bruce and Sara Frug for adding some great content to the LII site.

Let’s say you’re interested in 18 U.S. Code § 2516, the part of the U.S. code that authorizes interception of wire, oral, or electronic communications. Searching for it online, you’ll probably reach the Cornell page for that section of the code. In the right column, a box displays “Related bills now in Congress,” linking to relevant bills in Congress.

Those hyperlinks are democratic links, letting people know what Congress is doing, so people can look into it and have their say. Does liberty automatically break out thanks to those developments? No. But public demands of all types—including for liberty and limited government—are frustrated now by the utter obscurity in which Congress acts. We’re lifting the curtain, providing the data that translates into a better informed public, a public better equipped to get what it wants.

The path to liberty goes through transparency, and transparency is breaking out all over!

Government Data Flows Visualized

Today, I’m at the House Administration Committee’s Legislative Data and Transparency Conference. It’s become the annual confab for learning what the House is doing to improve transparency, for learning what the Senate is not doing to improve transparency, and to mix and mingle with others working on opening Congress’s deliberations to digital access.

In our 2012 study, Grading the Government’s Data Publication Practices, we issued letter grades reflecting the quality of data the government makes available about its own deliberations, managment, and results, covering legislative process and budgeting, appropriating, and spending. The grading was based on criteria set out in an earlier study, Publication Practices for Transparent Government.

Grades are a way of showing the public, opinion leaders, and legislators what’s going on. For most areas, the grading study showed that access to data is relatively poor.

There is no question that people are working hard on things, and the House has consistently put in the most effort over the last few years. (The recently passed DATA Act now requires the administration to make an effort. Oversight and badgering will help ensure that it does.)

My contribution this year is a brief talk in which I’ll present what’s happening with data another way: by presenting a visualization of what’s happening with data flows—pictures!

Water is a good metaphor for data. Ideally, data would emerge at the source, like a spring, drinkable and ready for use. But very often, key information about government is not available as data at all. People have to pump it out of the ground, turning paper or PDF documents into usable data. Sometimes data isn’t in a format that’s truly useful. It’s undrinkable or “polluted.”

A lot of people in a lot of places are working to take data that is not ready for use and make it available. Our own contribution at Cato is the Deepbills project, which adds data to bills that allows computers to more readily access their meaning. Like a little water treatment plant. It’s not the only one.

It’s a big file (5.6 MB), but if you want, you can look through the PowerPoint. (Ignore the “Soup to Nuts” page—that’s a funny, funny joke, in my opinion, aimed at those who attended last year.)

Let’s See What DATA Can Do

The New York Times reported at the top of page one yesterday on the $4.1 million in payments that a single physical therapist in Brooklyn got from Medicare in 2012. It’s a shocking sum, and Medicare fraud is common in both physical therapy and the Brooklyn area. The therapist who received the money says that the billings are for his large, multi-office practice.

The point is broader: Reporters, medical trade association figures, investigators and researchers are poring over newly released data about Medicare spending. They’re strengthening public oversight and the public’s capacity to question this government program. It’s data that the American Medical Association and other industry groups fought against releasing. There is risk that the numbers will lead some to unfair conclusions, perhaps even in the case of this Brooklyn physical therapist, but the public oversight it brings to the Medicare program and the circumspection it brings to fraudsters and others will be more than worth it. Data is a powerful oversight tool.

That’s why I think it’s good news that the House of Representatives passed the DATA Act yesterday. The Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, introduced by Mark Warner (D-VA) in the Senate and Darrell Issa (R-CA) in the House, requires the federal government to adopt data standards for all federal spending and publish all of it online. This will permit the public to gather insights like the ones in that New York Times story across the vastness of the federal spending enterprise. It will make the diffuse cost of government a little more acute in the minds of many, positioning Americans to say specifically which spending should stop.

Change will not come instantly, and the legislation is not self-executing, but groups like the Data Transparency Coalition, a prime mover behind the legislation, appear poised to insist on full execution of the law. Implementation should not have the cost that the Congressional Budget Office estimated for it, and if it does, the billions saved thanks to availability of information to the public should justify the costs. If another “cost” of transparency is improvement of federal programs that should be eliminated, I think that beats the today’s status quo of having them on the books and failing.

The DATA Act is not a direct response to a 2008 Cato event asking the Obama administration to “Just Give Us the Data.” Indeed, the administration has been conspicuously unsupportive of transparency in this area, though transparency was a key campaign theme in President Obama’s first election. Cato studies in this area since then include “Publication Practices for Transparent Government” and “Grading the Government’s Data Publication Practices.” We’ll be repeating the grading study during the summer, though it’s doubtful the administration’s grades will improve by that time. We will use the data structures that the DATA Act requires in our Deepbills project, which shines light on Congress’s proposals, including its plans for spending.

Transparency and Liberty

John McGinnis has some kind words for work I oversee here at Cato in a recent blog post of his entitled: “The Internet–A Technology for Encompassing Interests and Liberty.”

As he points out, the information environment helps determine outcomes in political systems because it controls who is in a position to exercise power.

The history of liberty has been in no small measure the struggle between diffuse and encompassing interests, on the one hand, and special interests, on the other.  Through their concentrated power, special interests seek to use the state to their benefit, while diffuse interests concern the ordinary citizen or taxpayer, or in William Graham Sumner’s arresting phrase, The Forgotten Man. When the printing press was invented, the most important special interests were  primarily the rulers themselves and the aristocrats who supported them. The printing press allowed the middle class to discover and organize around their common interests to sustain a democratic system that limited the exactions of the oligarchs.

But the struggle between diffuse and special interests does not disappear with the rise of democracy. Trade associations, farmers’ associations and unions have leverage with politicians to obtain benefits that the rest of us pay for. As a successor to the printing press, however, the internet advances liberty by continuing to reduce the cost of acquiring information. Such advances help diffuse groups more than special interests.

The Internet is the new printing press, and we’re generating data here at Cato that should allow it to have its natural, salutary effects for liberty.

My favorite current example is the “Appropriate Appropriations?” page published by the Washington Examiner. It allows you to easily see what representatives have introduced bills proposing to spend taxpayer money, information that—believe it or not—was hard to come by until now.

In John McGinnis, we have a legal scholar who recognizes the potential ramifications for governance of our entry into the information age. Read his whole post and, for more in this area, his book, Accelerating Democracy: Transforming Governance Through Technology.

Hacking for Liberty

You’ve probably heard the old parable about the man looking for his car keys under a street lamp because the light is better there.

I’ve regularly worried aloud about the government transparency project following the same path. Most recently, I pointed out that the president’s executive order was about open data, not transparent government.

“Open data” is pretty much any data the government makes available in useful formats – Agriculture Department data about the gender of farm operators, for example. But don’t look there for government transparency. The Ag Department’s check register is still in the dark.

Transparent government is going to result from data that reflects the deliberations, management, and results of all the government’s agencies and organs. It’s fine to release interesting data, and it’s fine for people to build things with it, but the government transparency project doesn’t advance without data about what government entities are thinking and doing, and how well they’re doing it.

That’s why I’m happy to have offered the legislative data we produce to a hack-a-thon happening this week in San Francisco. Lincoln Labs’ Liberty Hackathon offers $5,000 in prizes to the top producers of technologies that advance civic values like individual privacy and economic liberty. “Top ideas and teams will be considered for future investment.” Sounds good.

My hope is that someone will build something that makes it easier to automatically track what’s happening in Congress, like, oh, spending for example. Our data can automatically reveal every bill that proposes spending, the amount, and the purpose. Wouldn’t it be nice to have that information at your fingertips? You might be inspired to contact your senators and member of Congress and tell them what you think. Maybe an app will tell you how your representatives voted on each and every spending bill that becomes law.

“Data excavation” is how Seamus Kraft at the OpenGov Foundation has characterized the work we do in our Deepbills project, and I’ve been very complimented by his recognition of the work. Transparency will not be a gift from government. We’ll have to dig out the data about the government’s deliberations, management, and results. Maybe this weekend some of the projects produced at the Liberty Hackathon will show how excavated government data energize democracy and protect liberty.