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Dense federal regulations grow more accessible

In keeping with the Obama administration's push for a more open government, the Government Printing Office and National Archives' Office of the Federal Register are putting the complete body of federal regulations online in a searchable and convertible format.

To date the agencies have published the Code of Federal Regulations -- a 226-volume codification of rules published in the Federal Register -- going back to 2007; volumes from 2000 and on will be added during the next few months. The effort allows the public to browse the dense CFR on federal Web sites such as Data.gov and GPO's federal digital system, in XML, or Extensible Markup Language.

XML is a flexible, machine-readable form of text that can be easily manipulated with software and allows agencies to ensure information is not only available, but is searchable and usable. With XML editions of the CFR, independent organizations can process and reorganize the regulations to meet their needs, creating multiple platforms to share and present the federal regulation.

Federal Register Director Ray Mosley said the XML format could facilitate more technology-based civic engagement. "As creative entrepreneurs mine this data, exciting applications are going to be made available to the public that will open government and create new ways for the public to participate in government policy-making," he said.

For instance, groups found new uses for online material when GPO and the National Archives' Office of the Federal Register began publishing the Federal Register in XML last year. Princeton's Center for Information Technology in October 2009 launched Fedthread.org, which allows users to annotate the Federal Register and comment in its margins. GovPulse enables users to view Federal Register entries by topic, agency or location.

Publishing regulations in XML "is a good step in the right direction," said John Wonderlich, policy director of the Sunlight Foundation, an organization that focuses on the creation of tools and sites to make government data easily accessible. The effort's biggest limitation, however, "is how many people understand what CFR is used for and the number of people with expertise to access it and build on it," he said.

"This will change once people release new applications and Web sites building on the information available," Wonderlich said.

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