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Tracking the mutable government web

ProPublica’s ChangeTracker service has the potential for being very useful indeed. (See the FGI post about ChangeTracker by Rebecca Blakeley for more information about the service and ChangeTracker itself at ProPublica.)

The service tracks changes at the government web sites whitehouse.gov, recovery.gov and financialstability.gov. The service is similar to other change-tracking services that have been around for years (e.g., ChangeDetection) which automatically monitor changes on a web page and notify you anytime the page changes. In fact, it is built using Versionista (See Steal Our Code: How to Build Your Own Change-Tracking Feeds, by Brian Boyer, ProPublica, February 19, 2009.) See also, Steven Bell’s A Librarian’s Resource Center for Keeping Up for similar services. ProPublica goes one step further by setting up all the monitoring for you and doing side-by-side comparisons that highlight the changes.

Most changes are additions — new blog postings, new announcements, and so forth. This is nothing that a good RSS feed from the monitored site couldn’t provide just as well.

The potential for ChangeTracker, though, is its ability to automatically discover policy changes. For example, it discovered changes in wording about Hurricane Katrina on the “the “Additional Issues” portion of the White House web site’s “Agenda” section. On this page, text that described the Bush Administration’s response to Katrina as “unconscionable ineptitude” was deleted. See:

This particular example may not be earth-shaking, but it highlights the mutable nature of government information on the web. Posting information on a web page is not the same as publishing (instantiating) information and depositing it in FDLP libraries. The current situation endangers the accuracy and completeness of the historical record.

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