Freedom of Information and Government Data Tools – 3/6/13

Big Data, Open Government, and Sunlight

Freedom of Information and Government Data ToolsOpen States is the latest in a collection of Big Data-open government analysis tools from Sunlight Foundation. It has taken Sunlight Labs 4 years to scrape legislative data from 50 state websites (plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico), collect, sift, standardize, and make it all available in a single, comprehensive database that can be queried online by anyone via Open States API.

Individuals can use Open States at its most basic level to find who represents them in their state legislature, explore a legislator’s position on any bill, and get alerts when related legislation is introduced. Beyond contact information, Open States lists committee memberships, bill sponsorship, campaign contributions in the two most recent election cycles, coverage in the media (news and blogs), and recent votes. By clicking the link at the bottom of each Open States legislator profile, users will be presented the legislator’s profile from InfluenceExplorer providing details for all who have donated to the legislator’s campaign, with analysis of in-state versus out-of-state contributions; individuals versus PACs; top industries; and top contributors. InfluenceExplorer highlights and connects the dots on public and private influence (connections and relationships) from a number of different sources, including NIMSP—National Institute on Money in State Politics and CRP—Center for Responsive Politics.

The source of Open States data is listed at the bottom of each webpage, elegantly designed for visual clarity. The code for Open States is open source, and the public is encouraged to use the API and download bulk data (JSON or CSV) for additional, in-depth analysis. A number of organizations have used this data to create their own rich analyses, such as StateImpact from NPR and Pension Games from the Chicago Tribune.

Open States makes it easy to follow what’s going on with issues of concern in Washington, D.C., and across the nation. Those interested in following a bill, lawmaker, or issue can create a free Open States account and receive email alerts via Sunlight’s notifications platform, Scout. These customized email or text (SMS) alerts indicate actions Congress or state legislatures take on an issue or a specific bill.

Using Scout, users can search phrases within bills, federal regulations as they are passed, or speeches of legislators in a particular state, for example. Results are returned with source data provided in the sidebar, along with filtering options to limit the results by state or action (e.g., bills passed by the House, speeches by a member of Congress, phrases used by party affiliation). To obtain additional information on any bill, users need to simply click on the title in the search results to view what’s happening with the bill, when it’s coming up for debate on the floor, and links to original source material (e.g., THOMAS). Click on FOLLOW and Scout will notify you as soon as there is any movement on the bill.

Sources for Scout beyond Open States include the Congressional Record, THOMAS, GovTrack, GAO Reports, and the Federal Register. That means that users can use Scout to search proposed and final regulation from every federal agency, updated throughout the day. Search beyond a keyword or phrase is possible (e.g., use the minus sign to exclude terms from search results). Sunlight creates RSS feeds for every alert; users can import other data feeds from anywhere on the internet (e.g., Electionlawblog.org) letting Scout create an alert for any information in that feed. Tagging alerts allows users to aggregate those tags, grabbing the RSS feed, perhaps to make that feed public.

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