Legislative Databases recommendation makes it to House Leg Branch Appropriations markup

I’m ecstatic. All right, so this all goes back to late 2006, a bunch of people sitting at their computers writing some emails about what Congress should do with data. I distinctly remember Dan Newman and I both thinking that the Library of Congress should make its raw legislative database (that powers THOMAS) available directly to us to build applications off of, rather than the screen-scraping that I was doing. One thing leads to another, the Open House Project, the legislative databases section of the OHP report in May 2007 (which I principally wrote), then later that year with the support of Rep. Mike Honda, in November CHA asked the LOC to look into the issue (more), and then in the last month his office submitted text for the House Legislative Branch Appropriations Report, which made it through subcommittee markup of the bill, to give this request a little more teeth (like, ehm, the force of law).

His office also submitted a second paragraph which I’ll get to below.

Rob Pierson in Honda’s office writes on the OHP mail list:

I’ve mentioned on the list some of the steps my boss (Congressman Honda) has been taking, with counsel from many folks on this list, to guide Congressional policies on the path towards effectively leveraging technology to open up access to the public. There are actually quite a few other staffers who also follow this list, and we’ve certainly learned quite a bit from the conversations posted here, so I wanted to throw out a quick note of appreciation to everyone who has been contributing to the discussions.

With guidance from the conversations on this list (and the OHP report), Congressman Honda recently submitted the following sections into the House Legislative Branch Appropriations Report. The following (or possibly very similar versions) were included in the Leg Branch Subcommittee markup of the bill:

*Public Access to Legislative Data (as submitted)*

The Committee believes that the public should have improved access to legislative information through more advanced search capabilities such as those available through the Library of Congress’ Legislative
Information System. The Committee also supports enhancing public access to legislative documents, bill status, summary information, and other legislative data, through more direct methods such as bulk data downloads and other means of no-charge digital access to legislative databases. The Committee requests that the Library and Government Printing Office report on the progress towards these goals within 90 days of enactment of this Act.

Note that the GPO has also been stuck in there. More more on that, see this post.

The second paragraph that Honda’s office submitted John noted was parallel to the final chapter of our report, Coordinating Web Standards. (Hmm, I principally wrote that chapter too….)

*Congressional Technology Coordination (as submitted)*

The Committee recognizes the need for the House of Representatives to develop a strategic and coordinated plan that will prepare for the future technology needs of the institution. A 2006 report commissioned by the Chief Administrative Officer and the Committee on House Administration, entitled /Strategic Technology Road Map for the Ten Year Vision of Technology in the House of Representatives/ provided a suggested structure for an IT evaluation and decision-making process.
No later than 90 days after the enactment of this Act, the Committee requests that the Chief Administrative Officer, the Clerk, and the Sergeant at Arms report to the Committee of their efforts to develop House-wide data-sharing standards; implement standard legislative document formats; address the increasing resource challenges of Member offices; and identify disparate systems throughout the institution, which prevent it from taking advantage of economies of scale.

This is of course fantastic news for anyone that supports transparency, which is, well, everyone in their right mind, I think. So thanks to Congressman Honda for taking the initiative on this!

(Other links: last year’s leg branch appropriations blog post, my first or one of my first posts here about structured data)

Eating well on Independence Day

Happy 4th of July. I thought I’d share an interesting website that has nothing to do with government transparency but is about good use of government data. The USDA maintains a big database of nutrition facts about foods. You can download the database and build applications based on it, like a menu planner. This is something I’ve been thinking about in the back of my head for a while since after getting into the whole Michael Pollan food mind-set I’ve wondered whether one can make a healthy diet just by balancing various food groups (as I try to do with limited success), or whether (contra Pollan’s overall message, though maybe not in the details) it would be useful to start adding up the numbers of various nutrients to see how my meals match up with recommended values. How should I know, for instance, if I’ve managed to exclude an important vitamin in my particular selection of foods that I eat week after week, right?

The database is great itself, but the cooler website is MyPyramid Menu Planner (mypyramidtracker.gov) (also out of the USDA). You can enter a typical daily roster of what you eat (with a nice sound effect) and it will tell you how it stacks up for a recommended diet for your age (or for me, how to gain weight to a recommended amount for my age). It feels a little over-simplified, but the simplicity keeps me on the site. I find, not surprisingly, that I probably eat about half of the recommended calories and clearly not enough grain or fruit. Well, I knew this in the abstract, but quantifying it helps direct me to fixing the problem.

I’m sure there are other websites that do similar things, but it’s nice to find a case where the government has both published a comprehensive (well structured, well documented) database and has also built a really nice interface for the data. And on a topic that is really very important to daily life, too.

And with that, I think I will take the rest of the weekend off from civics!