Last night I got back from a two-day trip to D.C. The point of the
trip was to make a presentation about GovTrack and also to start some
collaboration with others on expanding the political information that
is freely and openly available online.
Monday afternoon I presented GovTrack and some ideas about the
semantic web to the people who are responsible for getting some
aspects of legislative information posted online in XML format. Right
now GovTrack gets its information from screen-scraping, which is an
inexact and fragile process of extracting information out of the same
HTML pages that you see when you view web sites. Having data
published also in XML format can greatly improve the accuracy of
getting information. What the people at the clerk of the House have
done to date, in terms of getting bills written in XML and roll call
votes posted in XML, has been a great step forward, although it
hasn’t been that useful for GovTrack. (One reason is the Senate
hasn’t followed suit because, as I understand it, the clerk of the
Senate isn’t authorized by the Senate itself to work on such things.)
I think I may have bored the attendees a bit. I wasn’t sure
exactly who was coming and what their backgrounds were. But, at the
least they know who I am now, and that might mean some collaboration
can occur in the future.
Daniel Bennett of DotGov put the session together — thanks
Daniel! DotGov runs the websites of some democratic representatives.
He and Jeff Mascott of RightClick Strategies (a pun on ‘right’ — it
took me a while to get that) also made presentations, which I
Daniel then took me out to dinner (thanks again!), and Chris and
April from DemocracyInAction came along. DIA is a nonprofit that
works with other nonprofits (on the left) to improve their
campaigning effectiveness, and I was really impressed with how
motivated they are. DIA is gathering legislative information like
GovTrack, and we talked about how we can get our data to relate
together, to start building a network of information that can, for
instance, be reused by grassroots activists to build their websites.
(See http://www.ogdex.info.) Some of the same type of discussion is
happening on the GovTrack mail list.
Yesterday I met with two people from
GalleryWatch.com, which provides a (not-free) service like
GovTrack’s, but in real time. They constantly monitor legislative
activity and in minutes of an action can update their clients. I
was, again, impressed by how these guys feel strongly about not just
making a business out of this but also giving back, by providing
their service at low cost to some non-commercial entities. They’re
interested in taking advantage of semantic web ideas, and I think
they’ll help bootstrap the process of building the (free and open)
I think I’ve met now almost all of the
players in the arena of building this network of political
information. Between everyone involved, including those on the
GovTrack mail list, we have enough data and enthusiasm to get
something very unique and useful started.