Friday, August 28, 2009

Legislative Tracking and Web 2.0


It's legislative tracking time in my specialized legal research class, so I thought I would reintroduce all of you to three of my favorite sites: GovTrack, OpenCongress, and MapLight.

I obviously speak joyously of the information available on Thomas, but despite the relatively recent addition of RSS feeds to the Congressional Record Daily Digest, and even more recent feeds for what's going on on the House and Senate Floors, the information on Thomas pretty much just "sits" there. I need more than that. I need my Web 2.0. GovTrack.us, OpenCongress and MapLight give me just that.

GovTrack allows visitors to research pending legislation by subject area and by Congressional committee. It also allows you to set up bill tracking RSS feeds (with registration) and embed widgets (which I hope to incorporate into LibGuides) such as for bill status updates. It also has a blog. My only complaint is that, in the past year, they removed the ability to research pending legislation as it would impact the United States Code (or they have very cleverly hidden it). As an alternative, I direct my students to Cornell's Legal Information Institute list of RSS feeds for particular titles of the USC.

OpenCongress (OC) brings together official government data with news coverage, blog posts, and public comments to give you the "real story" behind what's happening in Congress. OC has a blog and a wiki (portions of which have become required reading in my class, particularly the entry on how a bill becomes a law because of its briefer treatment than Thomas' How our Laws are Made).

Finally, MapLight is all about the money. Specifically, this site illuminates the connection between campaign donations and legislative votes. It links (a) bill text and legislative voting records, (b) supporting and opposing interests for each bill and (c) campaign contribution data from the Center for Responsive Politics and the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

So, by the end of the day, students know who is voting for what and why, how much it's going to cost taxpayers, and how much in campaign contributions are involved. At least that's the goal.

But beyond the political junkie in me that could talk about this kind of stuff all day long, I enjoy teaching these resources (in addition to Thomas, of course). They give me an opportunity to show how outside entities are taking free government information and making aspects of it more readily available and easier to manipulate. They also add a Web 2.0 twist to enhance the appeal, accessibility, and likelihood of public interest and participation in the federal legislative process.

This latter point serves as a conversation starter about how new technologies are increasing access to information and transparency of government and establish expectations of what would make a legislative site even more responsive to its constituents. After all, it is such deep thoughts that truly make it advanced legal research.

No comments: