Senate moves to open-data format

Government watchdogs called the move "great news for the ecosystem."

U.S. Capitol at Night

The U.S. Senate will begin making bills and other legislative information available for bulk XML download, following on efforts made by the House of Representatives in 2013. The Senate will include all summary and bill information from the 113th Congress, which just gaveled out, and legislation from the upcoming 114th.

This is a very big deal for watchdog groups and private firms that use legislative data to make products for tracking Congress. Before the Senate decision was announced Dec. 18 at a meeting of the Legislative Branch Bulk Data Task Force, users of Senate data had to scrape information from multiple sources. That can be expensive and yield inaccurate data, said Hudson Hollister, executive director of the Data Transparency Coalition and a former Capitol Hill staffer.

"This change by the Senate means a crucial link in the chain will become more reliable. It's great news for the ecosystem that wants to use government information to deliver transparency and deliver efficiency," Hollister told FCW.

Having the House and Senate legislation available for bulk download means it's possible to build services that track legislative language by keyword or topic as bills move through Congress, and follow the  process as bills get marked up in committee, combined with other bills, or amended on the floor. Already a few firms are building services along these lines, such as (Leg)Cyte and Fiscal Note.

Despite the recent move by the Senate, all of Congress isn't exactly speaking with one voice regarding data standards. In the summer of 2013, the Office of Law Revision Council, which maintains the U.S. Code as new legislation is signed into law, developed an XML information model called U.S. Legislative Markup (USLM) as a way of publishing laws and associated metadata in XML. This model could potentially be adapted for use across Congress for bills, summaries, reports and other information.

If the House and Senate adopted the same standard, Hollister points out, "then legislative drafters could use software tools that would automatically show the impact of what they're doing on the underlying law -- automatically redlining proposed legislation into the U.S. Code."

On the federal agency side, the U.S. Treasury and the Office of Management and Budget are in the midst of implementing the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, which requires agencies to publish spending data in machine readable format by May 2018. Eventually, data from Congress and agencies could combine into a seamless whole, to show the potential impact of proposed appropriations on programs and agency budget accounts, but that future appears a long way off.