Help Us Grow
OpenGovernment Beta
by PPF and the Sunlight Foundation

About opengovernment.org

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  1. Background and Mission

  2. Current Status

  3. Our Data Sources

  4. How To Use OpenGovernment

  5. Search Tips

  6. Help Us Open Government!

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OpenGovernment is a freeĀ and open-source public resource website for government transparency and civic engagement at the state and local levels. The site is a non-partisan joint project of two 501(c)3 non-profit organizations, the Participatory Politics Foundation and the Sunlight Foundation. OpenGovernment is independent from any government entity, candidate for office, or political party. The information contained on OpenGovernment pages, wherever applicable, is cited to a primary source-- while we aggregate many different data sources, we do not edit or manipulate government data in any way before presenting it here.

OpenGovernment comes from the team that brought you OpenCongress.org, a leading web tool for government transparency in the federal U.S. Congress. Conceived in 2004, the main problem that OpenCongress sought to address was a lack of accessible information online about bills, votes, and issues in the U.S. Congress. The official website of Congress, THOMAS, published raw data about legislation, but not in ways that are compliant with the community-generated Principles of Open Government Data, not in sufficiently timely ways, and not on webpages that were proven to be user-friendly. (More than 15 years after THOMAS' launch, it still doesn't come close to doing any of these things. The Library of Congress should move aggressively towards providing, among other things, bulk data access and a free API to the public.)

OpenCongress addressed this problem -- as much as possible given the inherited technical limitations of Congressional data sources -- by combining official government information with news & blog coverage from around the open Web, campaign contribution info, public participation tools, and more. The resulting open-source OpenCongress web application enables individuals and organizations to track and share information about what's really happening in Congress. Since its launch in 2007, OpenCongress has grown to become the most-visited government transparency website in the United States, and is proud to be an active contributor to a burgeoning ecosystem of open-government resources online. Read more about OpenCongress.

Ever since we conceived of OpenCongress in 2004, we foresaw that this model of aggregating disparate data sources into a user-friendly web interface could be productively applied to other entities: state legislatures, city councils, neighborhood associations, international institutions, governorships, secretaries of state, supreme courts, circuit judges, public-mission institutions such as schools & hospitals, foreign countries with more-or-less democratic systems of governance, and more.

In other words, we often received the quite-sensible question, "When will there be an OpenCongress for my state?" Or, "... for my city?" Or, "... for my neighborhood?" Or, ... "for my country?" We're happy to say we're on-track to answer that question. We're working with the staff at Sunlight Labs and many volunteers on the community-driven Open States Project, with the goal of establishing a data standard and collecting machine-readable data streams for all 50 U.S. State Legislatures. These data streams will provide official government info to GovKit, the open-source application that combines it with other publicly-available data sources and social wisdom from around the open Web. GovKit, in turn, will power the OpenGovernment website: essentially, free and non-partisan versions of OpenCongress for all fifty state legislatures and a dozen major cities, with even more local versions planned. We'll continue to encourage volunteers to remix the code for city, county, or municipal governments. Along the way, we've made our code more modular and better-documented, in order to make it possible for volunteers to make their own versions of OpenGovernment with an emphasis on the issues they and their communities care about.

So while our code has always been 100% open, we now have an even better answer to the question, "How do I make an OpenCongress for my (state, city, town, or country)?" OpenGovernment was designed to bring the OpenCongress model of transparency down to state and local governments.

The ultimate mission of OpenGovernment is to ensure that all three branches (executive, legislative, and judicial) at every level of government (federal, state, city, local, and more) comply with the Principles of Open Government Data. Public data can and should be public, immediately and in full, and it can and should be made accessible to everyone online, so as to increase trust in the political process. From this foundation of open government data, an entire ecosystem of public-interest tools can grow and evolve. Transparency, in turn, can create new opportunities for meaningful civic engagement in our representative democracy. Greater day-to-day civic engagement and citizen watchdogging, we believe, will result in reduced corruption in government, better public policy outcomes, and stronger democratic institutions.

Writing in early 2011, the situation with official websites for U.S. state legislatures is nearly exactly as it was with THOMAS in 2004. Unfortunately, almost no U.S. state government makes its data available in ways that are compliant with the Principles of Open Government Data, or even close. Out of the 49 bicameral state legislatures in the U.S. and one unicameral body (that of Nebraska), only one single chamber -- one entity out of 99, namely the New York State Senate -- makes its legislative data available in ways that sufficiently comply with the community-generated Eight Principles of Open Government Data. Every other chamber of state government remains insistently closed-off from its constituents, refusing to release public data (legislative actions, votes, bill analysis -- not to mention campaign contributions) online in ways that are truly open, despite the readily available technical means to do so. State legislatures, in other words, make public data "defective by design". Open-source software, open standards, flexible copyright licensing, and easily-findable technical best practices make it possible for any branch of state government to comply with the Eight Principles in a relatively short period of time ... given, of course, that the political & institutional will exists to do so. And that's just to address the back-end data issues... on the front-end, the status quo for state-level government websites is a mishmash of non-standards-based, poorly-designed websites that don't do nearly enough to keep the public at large informed. They're simply unacceptably user-unfriendly. The proof of this is how rarely they're used (linked-to and discussed) even on more-or-less-niche political blogs, much less in casual political conversation.

More background: There's too much money in politics, and not enough full public transparency buttressed by strong ethics rules and comprehensive electoral reform. As a result, trust in government institutions like the U.S. Congress is trending ever-lower, and voting rates are unacceptably depressed. As public opinion agency Gallup put it in July, the "2010 Confidence in Institutions poll finds Congress ranking dead last out of the 16 institutions rated this year. Eleven percent of Americans say they have 'a great deal' or 'quite a lot' of confidence in Congress, down from 17% in 2009 and a percentage point lower than the previous low for Congress, recorded in 2008."

If we were tasked with re-designing American democracy for the 21st century, we would revamp these arcane systems and bring them up to widely-accepted technical standards. Keeping in touch with your elected officials in government should be as easy as keeping in touch with friends on a social networking website such as, say, Facebook. There's no compelling reason why this should not be the case unless you're a stakeholder in the status quo -- a lobbyist or a political insider or an elected official who depends on the system remaining "defective by design". Looking ahead, open-source software and the Internet (and libre data and flexible copyright licenses) give us the tools we need to make all public data available to the public, immediately and in full. Such a radical degree of transparency is first necessary in order to restore public trust in government and increase civic engagement.

OpenGovernment is a first step towards a solution. In the shorter-term, OpenGovernment is basically a version of OpenCongress for state legislatures, in early open-source development. We cleaned-up the OpenCongress code base for OpenGovernment, bringing over some parts and writing lots of new code in Ruby on Rails, making it better-documented and more modular. We also simplified the web design and foregrounded more of our user-friendly participation tools along with our unique data offerings. We offer OpenGovernment to the public commons as a free, libre, and open-source model for open standards and future government transparency projects -- contributions warmly welcomed and remixes encouraged.

Current Status

As of November 2010, OpenGovernment has information for five state legislatures: California, Louisiana, Maryland, Texas, and Wisconsin. (Why these five states? The shortest answer is: these data problems are time- and work-intensive to solve, and it made sense for technical reasons to start with these five particular legislatures, which include two of the three biggest most-populous states in the country in CA and TX.) Over the course of the next year, we seek to roll out OpenGovernment to the remaining 45 U.S. state legislatures, and with additional resources, to more than a dozen major cities across the country. If you live in one of these five states, get started using OpenGovernment to track, understand, and contact your elected officials. If you don't live in one of these five states, please join our e-mail list to receive project updates, as a version of OpenGovernment for your state is in the works -- you can help speed it along and make it better, and until then you can explore our current offerings. We're a small team, easy to reach and eager to talk, that welcomes your questions and feedback -- let us know what you think! Contact us.

A note of background: state governments generally do not comply with the open standards of the Principles of Open Government Data in publishing their legislative data, of which they are the primary source and gatekeepers to the public, the community-driven Open States Project has had to obtain official government information largely through a sub-optimal technical method known as web scraping. (This is the same process that brings data from the U.S. Congress into OpenCongress -- read more about those data sources.) Because state governments (indeed, government entities at most every level) are not up to contemporary technical best practices in making data accessible on the open Web, it's far more difficult than it needs to be for OpenGovernment to display bill & vote information, and it's not -- yet -- possible to provide details of legislative actions like roll call results in real-time to the public. This is a tremendous deficit to open public knowledge in our democracy and the effort to combat systemic corruption in government. In the near future, we're optimistic that open technology will do even more to ensure a sufficiently trustworthy degree of transparency in state & local legislative chambers. At the moment, we've tackled this challenge with the open-source community, and brought together, as best possible within our current resources, the following data sources on OpenGovernment.org:

Our Data Sources

Datascape

At its core, OpenGovernment is a web application for aggregating and displaying government information alongside social wisdom from around the Web, campaign contribution data, and free public participation tools.

The information displayed on OpenGovernment is uniquely aggregated by the open-source GovKit API wrapper, which can be remixed for government at any level: state, city, local, international, and more. We're eager to scale up and roll out OpenGovernment to all 50 U.S. states and beyond -- find out how you can help fund our non-profit work and bring a version of OpenGovernment to your area.

OpenGovernment, in other words, is based on the OpenCongress model of transparency: combining official legislative information with news coverage, blog posts, social media mentions, public comment forums, community wiki projects, and more to give you the real story behind what's happening in government. In summary, our open data sources are the following:

  1. Official state government data from the Open States Project

  2. News and blog coverage via Google News and Blog Search

  3. Campaign contribution data from FollowTheMoney.org, via TransparencyData

  4. Issue group ratings and legislator contact information from Project VoteSmart

  5. Social media mentions from the Twitter API

  6. Legislator biographies from Wikipedia

  7. Video - to be crowdsourced for each state on Miro Community.

  8. U.S. Congressional data from THOMAS via our data partner GovTrack and the OpenCongress API.

  9. Geographic maps of districts from the U.S. Census Bureau

... here's an annotated image of how they come together on a bill page (link to .jpg, image forthcoming here). In more detail, and with a look ahead to our near-future open-source development roadmap, more about our data sources:
  1. The primary source for all legislative information on OpenGovernment is an official state government website, e.g., a state Senate or Assembly website with a .gov URL suffix. This mishmash of data is then standardized and delivered to OpenGovernment by the Open States Project coordinated by Sunlight Labs and its terrific volunteer community, consisting of the following: bills, members, actions, votes, committees, and more. This data stream of official legislative actions from Open States forms the legislative backbone of the site.

  2. News and blog coverage via Google News and Blog Search, using aggregators as developed previously on OpenCongress and optimized for state-level legislation.

  3. Campaign contribution data from the non-profit, non-partisan website of the National Institute on Money in State Politics (NIMSP), FollowTheMoney.org, via TransparencyData. Forthcoming, we seek to bring in much more state-level money-in-politics data from MAPLight, as seen in their MAPLight - California state site, as well as the terrific public accountability wiki project, LittleSis.

  4. Issue group ratings and official member contact information (where available) from the non-partisan Project VoteSmart API.

  5. Social media mentions from the Twitter API, with other social media services (e.g. Facebook, the open-source application Think Up, Identi.ca, Diaspora, and others) to come.

  6. Legislator biographies from Wikipedia and "how state gov works" resources via the Ballotpedia wiki

  7. Video - to be crowdsourced for each state on the Miro Community platform, a project of the non-profit Participatory Culture Foundation.

  8. U.S. Congressional data from THOMAS and other sources via our data partner GovTrack, also via the OpenCongress API,the Sunlight Labs Congress API, and the OG Community Project on the OpenCongress Wiki (built on semantic MediaWiki).

  9. Geographic maps of districts from the U.S. Census Bureau, with planned enhancements to come (viz., making the maps dynamic, as seen in typical Google Maps) via the open-source GeoServer.

... there are lots of ways you can help us add more useful data sources, liberate more public data from state legislatures, and remix the open data we've already liberated for greater transparency and accountability. Get in touch.

How To Use OpenGovernment

This "how to use OpenGovernment" resource will continually be fleshed out and expanded with more suggestions, illustrations of use cases, tutorials, and screenshots. Volunteer help is welcomed, please get in touch.

  1. Learn - use the "sort-by" buttons to browse bills and people in different ways: by most-viewed, most-in-the-news, and more. Your state government has likely had a website for over a decade, but when was the last time you actually used it? OpenGovernment seeks to provide the most user-friendly experience available in viewing state and local level political information. Click "bill text" to browse the actual text of bills, for example, those rated Key Votes by Project VoteSmart.

  2. Track - on pages for bills or people, click the "track" button at the top of the page to see offerings of RSS feeds that will keep you continually in touch with their latest actions. Coming soon, email alerts will offer another way of staying up-to-the-latest.

  3. Comment - on pages for bills or people, click "comment" in the left-hand sidebar to use peer-to-peer communication to build public knowledge about that bill. Specific comments about this bill work best here: its text, its status, its actions, or its votes.

  4. Share - on pages for bills or people, click the "share" button at the top of the page to see one-click built-in social sharing tools. Tweeting & Facebooking a bill or person page is another way to harness the power of peer-to-peer communication to build a more open and accountable government in your state.

  5. Contact - on pages for bills or people, click the "contact" button at the top of the page to see a pop-up window with a variety of contact information for your elected officials -- to the extent available, everything from email addresses to phone numbers to district office addresses. Never before has it been easier to read the details of a bill, see its status, research the campaign contributions to your members, and get in touch with their offices.

  6. Organize - link to OpenGovernment pages for bills and people when e-mailing or blogging about politics with your online network. With our built-in tools, you can coordinate a call-in about key votes to your members and organize an email campaign letting them know you're watching what they do.

Search Tips

Optimal formatting for querying bills by their official number will vary according to the different conventions of each U.S. state legislature -- that said, generally you can find a bill within a state on OG by searching just for its individual number and not including any letter prefix that may exist.

When searching for legislators, a direct hit on search will take you directly to that member's page. If you're looking for your elected officials, you can find them using the zip-code lookup box on your state's OG homepage.

Your input welcome here ... what terms are you searching for on OG and not finding? Contact us and let us know, we're continually tweaking and improving the site in response to real-world feedback. Your tips & use cases help make the site better for everyone.