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Free Government Information (FGI) is a place for initiating dialogue and building consensus among the various players (libraries, government agencies, non-profit organizations, researchers, journalists, etc.) who have a stake in the preservation of and perpetual free access to government information. FGI promotes free government information through collaboration, education, advocacy and research.

OpenGov Champion Sandra Moscoso used open data to fund DC school librarians

Sunlight Foundation’s OpenGov Champion of the month is Sandra Moscoso. Sandra is a mom of two public school students in Washington DC, and a member of the Capitol Hill Public School Parent Organization (CHPSPO) — oh and she just happens to manage an open data portal at the World Bank’s financial sector.

…she and other CHPSPO members were able to collect data to show how the schools that had a full time librarian had better test score results than those who had lost theirs due to budget cuts. The group was able to use that figure as an effective basis for their request to the city to restore funding for librarians.

Sunlight ranks state legislatures on openness. CA gets a D

The Sunlight Foundation just put out their Open Legislative Data Report Card. California received a D grade 😐 Find out how your state is doing. Below is the methodology that they used to grade state legislatures.


Each state was evaluated in six categories based largely on the Ten Principles For Opening Up Government Information. Each score is based on at least two members of staff and a volunteer during our state survey. Additionally, state legislatures were contacted (unless noted in their score) to ensure that our information on bulk data availability and timeliness was as accurate as possible.

The specific criteria for each category are as follows:


We evaluated each state on the data collected by Open States: bills, legislators, committees, votes and events. We also took note if a state went above and beyond to provide this information and other relevant contextual information such as supporting documents, legislative journals and schedules. Points were deducted for missing data, often roll call votes.

  • 0 State provides full breadth of legislative artifacts Open States collects: bills, legislators, votes, and committees.
  • -1 State does not provide stand-alone roll call votes.


Legislative information is most relevant when it happens, and many states are publishing information in real time. Unfortunately, there are also states where updates are more infrequent and showing up days after a legislative action took place. States were dinged if data took more than 48 hours to go online.

  • 1 Multiple updates throughout the day, real time or as close to it as systems will allow.
  • 0 Site updates once or twice daily, typically at the end of the legislative day.
  • -1 Updates take longer than 24 hours to appear on the site, often up to a week.


Common web technologies such as Flash or JavaScript can cause problems when reviewing legislative data. We found that the majority of sites work fairly well without JavaScript, but some received lower scores due to being extremely difficult to navigate, impossible to bookmark bills, and in extreme cases, completely unusable.

  • 1 Site was considered exceptionally well layed out by multiple evaluators, no issues with Javascript.
  • 0 Site was deemed average by those that evaluated it and/or had minor Javascript dependencies.
  • -1 Site was considered more difficult than average to use by members of staff or volunteers or had more severe Javascript dependencies.
  • -2 Site was considered extremely difficult to use with a heavy reliance on irregular browser behavior and Javascript.


For many sites, the Open States team wrote scrapers to collect legislative information from the website code—a slow, tedious and error prone process. We collected data faster and more reliably when data was provided in a machine-readable format such as XML, JSON, CSV or via bulk downloads. If a state posted PDF image files or scanned documents, it received the lowest score possible.

  • 2 Essentially all data can be found in machine-readable formats.
  • 1 Lots of data in machine readable format but substantial portions that still required scraping HTML.
  • 0 No machine readable data but standard screen scraping techniques applied.
  • -1 Site had information that was much more difficult than average to collect. (Data only accessible via PDF or that required screen scraper to emulate Javascript.)
  • -2 Site had information that was unaccessible to Open States due to use of scanned PDFs.


Because our ability to access most of a state’s data is represented by the above “Machine Readability” metric, we decided to use this provision to measure how a state made their bill text available. Making text available in HTML or PDF is the norm, and was considered an acceptable commonly owned standard (PDFs are a commonly owned standard, but it would be certainly nice to see alternative options where bill text is only available via PDF). States that only make documents available in Microsoft Word or Wordperfect formats require an individual to purchase expensive software or rely on free alternatives that may not preserve the correct formatting. It is worth noting, all states except for two met the common criteria of providing HTML and/or PDF only, one state (Kansas) went above and beyond and another (Kentucky) did not even meet this threshold.

  • 1 State made an effort to go above and beyond.
  • 0 State provided bills in PDF and/or HTML format and nothing better (plaintext, ODT, etc.).
  • -1 State only provided bills in a proprietary format.


Many states move or remove information when a new session starts, much to the dismay of citizens seeking information on old proposals and researchers that may have cited a link (e.g. http://somelegislature.gov/HB1 vs http://somelegislature.gov/2011/HB1) only to see it point to a different bill in the following session. Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, wrote an article declaring Cool URIs Don’t Change and we agree.

This poses a particular challenge to us since every page on OpenStates.org points to the page we collected data from, but if a state changes their site then users lose the ability to check us against the original source. Most (but not all) states are good about at least preserving bill information, but few were equally as good about preserving information about out-of-office legislators and historical committees, equally important parts of the legislative process.

  • 2 All information is avaialble in a permanent location and data goes back a reasonable amount of time (a decade or so).
  • 1 Almost all information has a permanent location but a single data set doesn’t. (Or a recent change to the site has wiped out historical links but information appears to be preservable going forward.)
  • 0 Legislator & committee information lacks a permanent location (such as committees and legislators) but most is acceptable.
  • -1 Ability to link to old information is badly damaged and and/or there is less than a decade of historical information.
  • -2 Vital information like bills or versions lack a permanent location.

Open States now available for all 50 states. Thanks @sunfoundation

The Sunlight Foundation has just released Open States for all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. The site helps the public find their state legislators, review their votes, search upcoming legislation, and track bill progress. Open States gets their Bill, legislator, committee and event data from official sources, linked at the bottom of each legislator, bill, vote, committee or event page. Check out their methodology for more. They rely primarily on scraping data from sites. Wouldn’t it be awesome of all state legislatures had bulk data feeds so that 1000 sites like Open States could bloom? Join the Webinar on February 22nd to learn more about Open States.

After more than four years of work from volunteers and a full-time team here at Sunlight we’re immensely proud to launch the full Open States site with searchable legislative data for all 50 states, D.C. and Puerto Rico. Open States is the only comprehensive database of activities from all state capitols that makes it easy to find your state lawmaker, review their votes, search for legislation, track bills and much more.

If you’re interested in your state lawmaker, you’ll be able to get notifications for their actions, a map of their district, voting records, committee assignments, campaign finance records from Influence Explorer, local news articles and contact information. If you’re curious about a particular piece of legislation, Open States allows you to check on its status, find the sponsors, break down votes, view bill text and all supporting documents. Our powerful search capabilities allow you to find similar topics across states and view overview pages for each state, chamber and committee.

Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science (PLOTS) are #OpenGov champions

The Sunlight Foundation recently named Liz Barry and her group at the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science (PLOTS) as OpenGov Champions. Sunlight highlights these champions for their work and ingenuity in furthering govt transparency.

Ms Barry and the PLOTS team is perhaps best known for using kites and helium balloons to map the BP [[Deepwater_Horizon_Oil_Spill|Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill]] in 2010, the only high resolution images out in the media at the onset of the catastrophe. PLOTS uses “mapping and other scientific DIY methods to empower local residents and activists to issue their own data sets to better engage with their local governments in environmental and other issues in their communities.”

Be sure to check out their many maps available in the PLOTS open data archive. And for all of you DIY scientists, you can chip in to the PLOTS DIY spectrometry kit kickstarter campaign and help them build a spectrum-sharing wiki.

Congratulations PLOTS!

Ad Hawk: the free app for identifying who’s behind political ads

Thanks Sunlight Foundation for creating Ad Hawk, the smartphone app that identifies political ads as they air and immediately tells you about who is behind them. I’m not so inundated with ads here in CA, but I bet this will be useful for all of our readers who are in swing states.