Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Three great tools for tracking legislative activity

If you've been frustrated by the clunky interface for Thomas and the difficulties in parsing the results of your searches there, you may want to check out some new web sites that do a nice job of cleaning up the data from Thomas and other government sources on Congressional activities.

A very user-friendly and accessible site that helps you to track:
If you register on the site, you can then set up email or RSS alerts that will notify you of activities related to the issues, bills, Senators, or Congresspeople that interest you.

The goal of this site is to present data on how individuals in Congress have voted and who has been funding those individual's campaigns. This 6-minute video on the site quickly explains how to use MAPLight to expose the connections between votes and campaign contributions.
This site goes into a little more depth than what is found on OpenCongress. One neat feature on t his site is that when you are looking at the details on a particular bill, you can see relevant Congressional Budget Office data on the expected cost of the bill and any Congressioal Research Service reports prepared for the bill. For example of how easy it is to check the status of a piece of legislation, take a look at how the info is presented on S. 456 from the 110th Congress (the "Gang Abatement and Prevention Act of 2007"). Compare that to how the same bill is summarized in Thomas.

I learned about two of these sites from blog posts and podcasts from Jon Udell, who lately works for Microsoft and has long been commenting on (and contributing to) the ways that the web is enabling us to wrangle complex sets of data, normalize it, and present it in a more accessible fashion. If you'd like to read about how he uses these sites to track legislation important to him and his interviews with the people who created them, here are the relevant links:

on MAPLight
  • Udell, Jon. "Net-enhanced democracy: Amazing progress, solvable challenges." Jon Udell, 22 July 2008. link
  • Udell, Jon. "Kudos for MAPLight’s visualization of Congressional activity." Jon Udell, 23 July 2008. link
  • Udell, Jon. "A conversation with Joshua Tauberer about GovTrack." Jon Udell, 28 July 2008. link

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