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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.

Congress.gov, the new THOMAS, launched in beta

The Library of Congress unveiled a new Web search tool for bills and other Congressional records Wednesday that will eventually replace the 17-year-old Thomas.gov website.

  • Congress.gov. Also see: About page.

    Congress.gov makes federal United States legislative information freely available to the public. Launched Sept. 19, 2012, this version of the site is an initial beta release of Congress.gov, created as a successor to THOMAS.gov, the current public site for legislative information. The Congress.gov beta site contains legislation from the 107th Congress (2001) to the present, member of Congress profiles from the 93rd Congress (1973) to the present, and selected member profiles from the 80th through the 92nd Congresses (1947 to 1972). Over the next two years, Congress.gov will be adding information and features, eventually incorporating all of the information currently available on THOMAS.gov.

  • Smartphone friendly, congressional search site unveiled, By Joseph Marks, NextGov (Sep 19, 2012).
     
  • Congress launches THOMAS successor Congress.gov, by Daniel Schuman, Sunlight Foundation (Sept. 19, 2012)

    What’s noticeable about this evolving beta website, besides the major improvements in how people can search and understand legislative developments, is what’s still missing: public comment on the design process and computer-friendly bulk access to the underlying data.

Update:
Here is another story:

  • What Congress.gov Means for a Congressional API, by Nick Judd and Miranda Neubauer TechPresident (September 19 2012)

    “I’m impressed,” said Josh Tauberer, whose GovTrack scrapes data from THOMAS to provide it in a machine-readable form for other websites like OpenCongress, in an email. “From its new faceted search to its mobile-friendly HTML, they really hit the technology on the nail. And there’s more explanation for people who aren’t legislative pros. They may be slowly catching up to GovTrack.

    “This new site shows that the LOC actually has the technical chops to implement raw data properly, which was a serious concern of mine before,” Tauberer also wrote.

    That said, Tauberer pointed out that the new site offers “no new actual information.” House leadership has promised to offer access to the underlying data that fuels THOMAS and has repeatedly expressed a commitment to doing it. They just haven’t committed to doing it during this Congress. And the lack of action on something that seems to them to be eminently doable has advocates kind of frustrated.

    Gayle Osterberg, Director of Communications for the Library of Congress, seemed to indicate in an email that the Library of Congress is ready to cooperate. They just need Congress — meaning the House and Senate both — to give them the go-ahead.

Another update:

  • Congress.gov Beta: An Early Look at a New THOMAS, by Peggy Garvin, InfoToday, (September 27, 2012).

    The Congress.gov beta is still in the early stages of incorporating existing THOMAS content and implementing the improved search functions that THOMAS users have been waiting for. The Law Library of Congress, which is managing the transition, is anxious to get your feedback and suggestions via its form at http://beta.congress.gov/survey.

Sunlight on Thomas (Beta) and LIS and the future of Legislative Information

Looking Forward to the THOMAS Beta Website, by Daniel Schuman, Sunlight Foundation (Sept. 14, 2012).

In the near future, Congress is expected to release a major upgrade to its aging legislative information website THOMAS. The long-overdue update is part of a much larger effort to “enhance the effectiveness of mission-critical systems,” a response to significant public and internal pressure to improve congressional efficiency and transparency. The launch of “THOMAS Beta” is the first step towards developing what the Library of Congress describes as a completely “modern legislative information system” that will replace THOMAS and Congress’ more sophisticated internal legislative tracking website “LIS” in FY 2014. Both THOMAS and LIS will stay online alongside the beta website for several years.

While THOMAS Beta has been shown to stakeholders inside Congress, as far as I am aware there has been no formal engagement process with the public to identify specifications, discuss wireframes, or generally make sure the site meets the public’s needs.

Comparing LIS and Thomas

The Congressional Research Service has published an update to its handy guide for finding current legislation and regulations:

For those experienced in legislative and regulatory searching there won’t be anything new or surprising here, but it is a handy introduction and reference.

One thing I particularly liked was the comparison on p. 13 of the “Legislative Information System,” which provides access to legislative information to Members of Congress and their staff, and THOMAS, which makes information on federal legislation freely available to the public. That’s right, one system for Congress and a separate system for us ordinary folk.

Here is a sample:

LIS THOMAS
Best used for Finding the most complete legislative information Best used for Working with constituents
Links from Bill Summary & Status display to CRS reports No CRS reports
Links to Capitol Hill and selected outside sources of floor and committee schedule information. Minimal links
Special advanced search capabilities Advanced search capabilities only in Bill Summary & Status database

Again, this won’t be news to most of you, but it is a nice summary of what we are missing.

#FreeTHOMAS

Time to contact your representatives!

  • #FreeTHOMAS, by Daniel Schuman, Sunlight Foundation (June 4, 2012)

    The better approach is for Congress to publish the data behind THOMAS. Government regularly does this elsewhere, and “bulk data” is responsible for clever new uses of information developed by citizens, journalists, and even the government itself.

    In upcoming days, the House is likely to pass legislative language that pays lip service to releasing THOMAS data while putting the idea in a deep freeze. This would be a disaster. But it’s not too late. Tell your representative that you want Congress to publish legislative data now.

Help improve public access to Congressional/legislative information #FDLP

FGI just signed the letter below written by the Sunlight Foundation asking Congress to improve public access to legislative information by directing the Library of Congress to make their Thomas database accessible in bulk format. If you and/or your organization believe that free access to Congressional information is of critical importance, please please consider adding your name to the list of signatories on the letter. Daniel Schuman, Sunlight Foundation’s policy counsel and director of the Advisory Committee on Transparency, requests that people sign on by COB on Monday April 2nd. Interested people may also email Daniel at dschuman@sunlightfoundation.com) with how they would like to be identified on the letter. Daniel thanks you and so do we!


Dear Congressman/Senator:

We are writing to ask you to improve public access to legislative information by directing the Library of Congress to publish the THOMAS database online. Congress created THOMAS with the mission of making federal legislation freely available to the public. While times have changed, and technologies have changed, THOMAS has not kept up.

As a result, millions of Americans access basic information about legislation and congressional actions through online information providers like GovTrack, OpenCongress, and Washington Watch. These free non-governmental websites are forced to rely on brittle programs to harvest information from THOMAS’s complex website. This harvesting is imperfect, expensive, and time consuming. The better approach — which has been adopted by industry and many in government — is to publish legislative information “in bulk” in addition to other means.

Bulk access would in essence make the entire legislative database available for download, instead of requiring users to gather information by visiting hundreds or thousands of web pages. It would make it easier for third parties to build innovative new tools, and ensure that Americans have the most accurate information at their fingertips. Congress already expressed its support for bulk access downloads in 2009, but the Library of Congress, which oversees THOMAS, has not acted. In the meantime, GPO, the executive branch, and the House of Representatives are already publishing information online in bulk.

The time has come for action. In this year’s legislative branch appropriations bill, we urge you to direct the Library of Congress to implement bulk access to THOMAS within 120 days. The Library should also immediately create an advisory committee on improving public access to legislative information composed of people inside and outside of government. Congress should ensure that THOMAS lives up to its potential of making the legislative branch more open and transparent.

For more information, please contact Daniel Schuman, policy counsel, the Sunlight Foundation, at 202-742-1520 x 273 or dschuman@sunlightfoundation.com

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