A Transparency Milestone

This week, I reported at the Daily Caller (and got a very nice write-up) about a minor milestone in the advance of government transparency: We recently finished adding computer-readable code to every version of every bill in the 113th Congress.

That’s an achievement. More than 10,000 bills were introduced in Congress’s last-completed two-year meeting (2013-14). We marked up every one of them with additional information.

We’ve been calling the project “Deepbills” because it allows computers to see more deeply into the content of federal legislation. We added XML-format codes to the texts of bills, revealing each reference to federal agencies and bureaus, and to existing laws no matter how Congress cited them. Our markup also automatically reveals budget authorities, i.e., spending.

Want to see every bill that would have amended a particular title or section of the U.S. code? Deepbills data allows that.

Want to see all the bills that referred to the Administration on Aging at HHS? Now that can be done.

Want to see every member of Congress who proposed a new spending program and how much they wanted to spend? Combining Deepbills data with other data allows you to easily collect that imporant information.

Now, data is just data. It doesn’t do all that stuff until people make web sites, information services, and apps with it. There have been some users, including the Washington Examiner, Cornell University’s Legal Information Institute, the New York Times web site, and my own WashingtonWatch.com.

As importantly, this milestone is a proof of concept for Congress. Early this year, aware of our work, the House amended its rules, asking the Committee on House Administration, the House Clerk, and others to “broaden the availability of legislative documents in machine readable formats.” We’ve shown that it can be done, blazed a bit of a trail, and made some mistakes so Congress’s support agencies don’t have to! (They’ll make there own.) There are good folks on Capitol Hill making steady progress toward opening up the Congress to computer-aided oversight.

Deepbills has been a significant undertaking, and we’re not certain that we’ll do it again in the 114th Congress. If we do, we’ll add more data elements, so that the stories that the data can tell get richer.

In my debut policy paper on transparency, Publication Practices for Transparent Government, I analogized between data flows and water. For government to be transparent, it must publish data in particular formats, just like water must be liquid and relatively pure.

Well-formed data does not automatically produce transparency. You must have a society that is compared to consume it. As data flows about the government’s deliberations, management, and results widen, you’ll see web sites, information services, and apps expand the consumption of it. This will encourage further widening of the data flows, which will in turn draw more data consumers.

Right now, I’m looking for researchers, political scientists, and such to take the corpus of data we produced about the 113th Congress and use it to more closely examine our national legislature. There are some prominent theories about congressional behavior that could be tested a little more closely with the aid of Deepbills data. It’s there for the taking, and using Deepbills data will help show that there is a community of users and value to be gotten from better data about Congress.

If you’re not a data nerd, this achievement may seem pretty arcane. But if you are a data nerd, please join me in popping a magnum of Mountain Dew to celebrate. The Deepbills project has been supported by the Democracy Fund, which has proven itself a bastion of foresighted brilliance for doing so. They have our thanks, and deserve yours.