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OpenGovernment.org connects state government to citizens

A new site collects government data and news in a lightweight interface.

OpenGovernment.org, a free, open source online portal designed to make open state government available to citizens, launched this morning.

OpenGovernment.org makes it easier for citizens to learn about pending legislation and their legislators by combining open government data, information about state legislators, multiple databases of voting information, social mentions and news coverage into a lightweight online user interface. If that sounds a lot like what OpenCongress.org does for the federal government, it should: it’s the same model, adapted to the state level. Radar readers will remember that OpenGovernment.org was one of our civic innovation organizations to watch in 2011.

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OpenGovernment.org is a joint project of the Participatory Politics Foundation and the Sunlight Foundation. The beta version has launched with information for legislatures in California, Louisiana, Maryland, Texas, and Wisconsin. The nonprofit is actively seeking funding to expand to all 50 U.S. states and major cities.

“We’re providing a concentrated activity stream that offers a more calibrated way of staying in touch with state government,” said David Moore, executive director of the Participatory Politics Foundation. “We believe in the power of peer-to-peer communications, which means connecting with people online and empowering them to share information with one another.”

The idea, said Moore, is simple in conception but difficult in execution: create a free, open source platform where “it’s as easy to follow your state senator as it is to follow your friends on Facebook.”

To get to launch today, the team rewrote the code base for OpenCongress, including an improved Ruby wrapper for open government APIs. The code for the wrapper is available through GitHub. Official legislative information is integrated with Follow the Money, ratings, news and blog information.

“We see this as a tool to fight systemic corruption in government,” said Moore. “We think this is a good interface for finding representatives, from federal all the way down. It’s an article of faith that even people who use OpenCongress don’t know what’s hot in state legislatures. There hasn’t been a lot of scrutiny or information design devoted to this issue, and we think that’s one of our core competencies.”

OpenGovernment.org updates the model of aggregated official government data, profiles of officials, and bill pages with improved integration of “social wisdom of the crowds,” the Disqus comment system, and a “what’s hot” tool. Moore thinks that last detail will help reporters, bloggers and citizens get a better handle on what’s going on.

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OpenGovernment.org has ambitious plans for later this year, including mobile versions and apps, and giving users the ability to track issues and receive updates on topics of interest.

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