Can the People's House become a social platform for the people?

The combined potential of social media and legislative data took the stage at the first congressional hackathon.

Congressional hackathon
InSourceCode developers work on “Madison” with volunteers.

There wasn’t a great deal of hacking, at least in the traditional sense, at the “first congressional hackathon.” Given the general shiver that the word still evokes in many a Washingtonian in 2011, that might be for the best. The attendees gathered together in the halls of the United States House of Representatives didn’t create a more interactive visualization of how laws are made or a mobile health app. As open government advocate Carl Malamud observed, the “hack” felt like something even rarer in the “Age of the App for That:”

In a time when partisanship and legislative gridlock have defined Congress for many citizens, seeing the leadership of the United States House of Representatives agree on the importance of using the power of data and social networking to open government was an early Christmas present.

“Increased access, increased connection with our constituents, transparency, openness is not a partisan issue,” said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.

“The Republican leader and I may debate vigorously on many issues, but one area where we strongly agree is on making Congress more transparent and accessible,” said House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer in his remarks. “First, Congress took steps to open up the Capitol building so citizens can meet with their representatives and see the home of their legislature. In the same way, Congress is now taking steps to update how it connects with the American people online.”

An open House

While the event was branded as a “Congressional Facebook Developer Hackathon,” what emerged more closely resembled a loosely organized conference or camp.

Facebook executives and developers shared the stage with members of Congress to give keynotes to the 200 or so attendees before everyone broke into discussion groups to talk about constituent communications, press relations and legislative data. The event might be more aptly described as a “wonk-a-thon,” as Sunlight Foundation’s Daniel Schuman put it last week.

This “hackathon” was organized to have some of the feel of an unconference, in the view of Matt Lira, digital director for the House Majority Leader. Lira sat down for a follow-up interview last Thursday.

“There’s a real model to CityCamp,” he said. “We had ‘curators’ for the breakout. Next time, depending on how we structure it, we might break out events that are designed specifically for programming, with others clustered around topics. We want to keep it experimental.”

Why? “When Aneesh Chopra and I did that session at SXSW, that personally for me was what tripped my thinking here,” said Lira. “We came down from the stage and formed a circle. I was thinking the whole time that it would have been a waste of intellectual talent to have Tim O’Reilly and Clay Shirky in the audience instead of engaging in the conversation. I was thinking I never want to do a panel again. I want it to be like this.”

Part of the challenge, so to speak, of Congress hosting a hackathon in the traditional sense, with judging and prizes, lies in procurement rules, said Lira.”There are legal issues around challenges or prizes for Congress,” he explained. “They’re allowed in the executive branch, under DARPA, and now every agency under the COMPETES Act. We can’t choose winners or losers, or give out prizes under procurement rules.”

Whatever you call it, at the end of the event, discussion leaders from the groups came back and presented on the ideas and concepts that had been hashed out. You can watch a short video that EngageDC produced for the House Majority Leader’s office below:

What came out of this unprecedented event, in other words, won’t necessarily be measured in lines of code. It’s that Congress got geekier. It’s that the House is opening its doors to transparency through technology.

Given the focus on Facebook, it’s not surprising that social media took center stage in many of the discussions. The idea for it came from a trip to Silicon Valley, where Representative Cantor said he met with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg, and discussed how to make the House more social. After that conversation, Lira and Steve Dwyer, director of online communications and technology for the House Democratic Whip, organized the event.

For a sense of the ideas shared by the working groups, read the story of the first congressional “hackathon” on Storify.

“For government, I don’t think we could have done anything more purposeful than this as a first meeting,” said Lira in our interview. “Next, we’ll focus on building this group of people, strengthening the trust, which will prove instrumental when we get into the pure coding space. I have 100% confidence that we could do a programming-only event now and would have attendance.”

A Likeocracy in alpha

As the Sunlight Foundation’s John Wonderlich observed earlier this year, access to legislative data brings citizens closer to their representatives.

“When developers and programmers have better access to the data of Congress, they can better build the databases and tools that let the rest of us connect with the legislature,” he wrote.

If more open legislative data goes online, when we talk about what’s trending in Congress, those conversations will be based upon insight into how the nation is reacting to them on social networks, including Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Facebook developers Roddy Lindsay, Tyler Brock, Eric Chaves, Porter Bayne, and Blaise DiPersia coded up a simple proof of concept of what making legislative data might look like. “LikeOcracy” pulls legislation from a House XML feed and makes it more social. The first version added Facebook’s ubiquitous “Like” buttons to bill elements. A second version of the app adds more opportunities for reaction by integrating ReadrBoard, which enables users to rate sections or individual lines as “Unnecessary, Problematic, Great Idea or Confusing.” You can try it out on three sample bills, including the Stop Online Piracy Act.

Would “social legislation” in a Facebook app catch on? The growth of civic startups like PopVox, OpenCongress and Votizen suggests that the idea has legs. [Disclosure: Tim O'Reilly was an early angel investor in PopVox.]

Likeocracy doesn’t tap into Facebook’s Open Graph, but it does hint at what integration might look like in the future. Justin Osofsky, Facebook’s director of platform partnerships, described how the interests of constituents could be integrated with congressional data under Facebook’s new Timeline. Citizens might potentially be able to simply “subscribe” to a bill, much like they can now for any web page, if Facebook’s “Subscribe” plug-in was applied to the legislative process.

Opening bill markup online

The other app presented at the hackathon came not from the attendees but from the efforts of InSourceCode, a software development firm that’s also coded for Congressman Mike Pence and the Republican National Committee.

Rep. Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, introduced the beta version of MADISON on Wednesday, a new online tool to crowdsource
legislative markup
. The vision is that MADISON will work as a real-time markup engine to let the public comment on bills as they move through the legislative process. “The assumption is that legislation should be open in Congress,” said Issa. “It should be posted, interoperable and commented upon.”

As Nick Judd reported at techPresident, the first use of MADISON is to host Issa and Sen. Ron Wyden’s “OPEN bill,” which debuted on the app. Last week, the congressmen released the Online Protection and Enforcement of Digital Trade Act (OPEN) at Keepthewebopen.com. The OPEN legislation removes one of the most controversial aspects of SOPA, using the domain name system for enforcement, and instead places authority with the International Trade Commission to address enforcement of IP rights on websites that are primarily infringing upon copyright.

Issa said that his team had looked at the use of wikis by Rep. John Culberson, who put the healthcare reform bill online in a wiki. “There are some problems with editors who are not transparent to all of us,” said Issa. “That’s one of the challenges.
We want to make sure that if you’re an editor, you’re a known editor.”

MADISON includes two levels of authentication: email for simple commenting and a more thorough vetting process for organizations or advocacy groups that wish to comment. “Like most things that are a 1.0 or beta, our assumption is that we’ll learn from this,” said Issa. “Some members may choose to have an active dialog. Others may choose to have it be part of pre-markup record.”

Issa fielded a number of questions on Wednesday, including one from web developer Brett Stubbs: “Will there be open access or an API? What we really want is just data.” Issa indicated that future versions might include that.

Jayson Manship, the “chief nerd” at InSourceCode, said that MADISON was built in four days. According to Manship, the idea came from conversations with Issa and Seamus Kraft, director of digital strategy for the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. MADISON is built with PHP and MySQL, and hosted in RackSpace’s cloud so it can scale with demand, said Manship.

“It’s important to be entrepreneurial,” said Lira in our interview. “There are partners throughout institutions that would be willing to do projects of different sizes and scopes. MADISON is something that Issa and Seamus wanted to do. They took it upon themselves to get the ball rolling. That’s the attitude we need.”

“We’re working to hold the executive accountable to taxpayers,” said Kraft last week. “Opening up what we do here in these two halls of Congress is equally important. MADISON is our first shot at it. We’re going to need a lot of help to make it better.”

Kraft invited the remaining developers present to come to the Rayburn Office Building, where Manship and his team had brought in half a dozen machines, to help get MADISON ready for launch. While I was there, there were conversations about decisions, plug-ins and ideas about improving the interface or functionality, representing a bona fide collaboration to make the app better.

There’s a larger philosophical issue relating to open government that Nick Judd touched upon over at techPresident in a follow-up post on MADISON:

The terms for the site warn the user that anything they write on it will become public domain — but the code itself is proprietary. Meanwhile, OpenCongress’ David Moore points out that the code that powers his organization’s website, which also allows users to comment on individual provisions of bill text, is open source and has been available for some time. In theory, this means the Oversight staff could have started from that code and built on it instead of beginning from scratch. The code being proprietary means that while people like Moore might be able to make suggestions, they can’t just download it, make their own changes and submit them for community review — which they’d happily do at little or no cost for a project released under an open-source license.

As Moore put it, “Get that code on GitHub, we’ll do OpenID, fix the design.”

When asked about whether the team had considered making MADISON code open source, Manship said that “he didn’t know, although they weren’t opposed to it.”

While Moore welcomed MADISON, he also observed that Open Congress has had open-source code for bill text commenting for years.

The decision by Issa’s office to fund the creation of an app that was already available as open-source software is one that’s worth noting, so I asked Kraft why they didn’t fork OpenCongress’ code, as Judd suggests. “While there was no specific budget expense for MADISON, it was developed by the Oversight Committee,” said Kraft.

“While we like and support OpenCongress’ code, it didn’t fit the needs for MADISON,” Kraft wrote in an emailed statement.

What’s next is, so to speak, an “OPEN” question, both in terms of the proposed SOPA alternative and the planned markup of SOPA itself on December 15. The designers of OPEN are actively looking for feedback from the civic software development community, both in terms of what functionality exists now and what could be built in future iterations.

THOMAS.gov as a platform

What Moore and long-time open-government advocates like Carl Malamud want to see from Congress is more structural change:

They’re not alone. Dan Schuman listed many other ways the House has yet to catch up with 21st century technology:

We have yet to see bulk access to THOMAS or public access to CRS reports, important legislative and ethics documents are still unavailable in digital format, many committee hearings still are not online, and so on.

As Schuman highlighted, the Sunlight Foundation has been focused on opening up Congress through technology since the organization was founded. To whit: “There have been several previous collaborative efforts by members of the transparency community to outline how the House of Representatives can be more open and accountable, of which an enduring touchstone is the Open House Project Report, issued in May 2007,” wrote Schuman.

The notion of making THOMAS.gov into a platform received high-level endorsement from a congressional leader when House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer remarked on how technology is affecting Congress, his caucus and open government in the executive branch:

For Congress, there is still a lot of work to be done, and we have a duty to make the legislative process as open and accessible as possible. One thing we could do is make THOMAS.gov — where people go to research legislation from current and previous Congresses — easier to use, and accessible by social media. Imagine if a bill in Congress could tweet its own status.

The data available on THOMAS.gov should be expanded and made easily accessible by third-party systems. Once this happens, developers, like many of you here today, could use legislative data in innovative ways. This will usher in new public-private partnerships that will empower new entrepreneurs who will, in turn, yield benefits to the public sector.

One successful example is how cities have made public transit data accessible so developers can use it in apps and websites. The end result has been commuters saving time every day and seeing more punctual trains and buses as a result of the transparency. Legislative data is far more complex, but the same principles apply. If we make the information available, I am confident that smart people like you will use it in inventive ways.

Hoyer’s specific citation of the growth of open data in cities and an ecosystem of civic applications based upon it is further confirmation that the Gov 2.0 meme is moving into the mainstream.

Making THOMAS.gov into a platform for bulk data would change what’s possible for all civic developers. What I really want is “data on everything,” Stubbs told me last week. “THOMAS is just a visual viewer of the internal stuff. If we could have all of this, we could do something with it. What I would like is a data broker. I’d like a RESTful API with all of the data that I could just query. That’s what the government could learn from Facebook. From my point of view, I just want to pull information and compile it.”

If Hoyer and the House leadership would like to see THOMAS.gov act as a platform, several attendees at the hackathon suggested to me that Congress could take a specific action: collaborate with the Senate and send the Library of Congress a letter instructing it to provide bulk legislative data access to THOMAS.gov in structured formats so that developers, designers and citizens around the nation can co-create a better civic experience for everyone.

“The House administration is working on standards called for by the rule and the letter sent earlier this year,” said Lira. “We think they will be satisfactory to people. The institutions of the House have been following through since the day they were issued. The first step was issuing an XML feed daily. Next year, there will be a steady series of incremental process improvements. When the House Administrative Committee issues standards, the House Clerk will work on them. “

Despite the abysmal public perception of Congress, genuine institutional changes in the House of Representatives driven by the GOP embracing innovation and transparency are incrementally happening. As Tim O’Reilly observed earlier this year, the current leadership of the House on transparency is doing a better job than their predecessors.

In April, Speaker Boehner and Majority Leader Cantor sent a letter to the House Clerk regarding legislative data release. Then, in September, a live XML feed for the House floor went online. Yes, there’s a long way to go on open legislative data quality in Congress. That said, there’s support for open-government data from both the White House and the House.

“My personal view is that what’s important right now is that the House create the right precedents,” said Lira. “If we create or adopt a data standard, it’s important that it be the right standard.”

Even if open government is in beta, there needs to be more tolerance for experiments and risks, said Lira. “I made a mistake in attacking We the People as insufficient. I still believe it is, but it’s important to realize that the precedent is as important as the product in government. In technology in general, you’ll never reach an end.
We The People is a really good precedent, and I look forward to seeing what they do.
They’ve shown a real commitment, and it’s steadily improving.”

A social Congress

While Sean Parker may predict that social media will determine the outcome of the 2012 election, governance is another story entirely. Meaningful use of social media by Congress remains challenged by a number of factors, not least an online identity ecosystem that has not provided Congress with ideal means to identify constituents online. The reality remains that when it comes to which channels influence Congress, in-person visits and individual emails or phone calls are far more influential with congressional staffers.

As with any set of tools, success shouldn’t be measured solely by media reports or press releases but by the outcomes from their use. The hard work of bipartisan compromise between the White House and Congress, to the extent it occurs, might seem unlikely to be publicly visible in 140 characters or less.

“People think it’s always an argument in Washington,” said Lira in our interview. “Social media can change that. We’re seeing a decentralization of audiences that is built around their interests rather than the interests of editors. Imagine when you start streaming every hearing and making information more digestible. All of a sudden, you get these niche audiences. They’re not enough to sustain a network, but you’ll get enough of an audience to sustain the topic. I believe we will have a more engaged citizenry as a result.”

Lira is optimistic. “Technology enables our republic to function better. In ancient Greece, you could only sustain a democracy in the size of city. Transportation technology limited that scope. In the U.S., new technologies enabled global democracy. As we entered the age of mass communication, we lost mass participation. Now with the Internet, we can have people more engaged again.”

There may be a 30-year cycle at play here. Lira suggested looking back to radio in the 1920s, television in the 1950s, and cable in the 1980s. “It hasn’t changed much since; we’re essentially using the same rulebook since the ’80s. The changes made in those periods of modernization were unique.”

Thirty years on from the introduction of cable news, will the Internet help reinvigorate the founders’ vision of a nation of, by and with the people? “I do think that this is a transformational moment,” said Lira. “It will be for the next couple of years. When you talk to people — both Republicans and Democrats — you sense we’re on the cusp of some kind of change, where it’s not just communicating about projects but making projects better. Hearings, legislative government and executive government will all be much more participatory a decade from now. “

In that sweep of history, the “People’s House” may prove to be a fulcrum of change. “If any place in government is going to do it, it’s the House” said Lira. “It’s our job to be close to the public in a way that no other part of government is. In the Federalist Papers, that’s the role of the House. We have an obligation to lead the way in terms of incorporating technology into real processes. We’re not replacing our system of representative government. We’re augmenting it with what’s now possible, like when the telegraph let people know what the votes were faster.”

UPDATE: On December 16th, the Committee on House Administration adopted new standards that require all House legislative documents to be published in an open, searchable electronic format.

“With the adoption of these standards, for the first time, all House bills, resolutions and legislative documents will be available in XML in one centralized location,” said Representative Dan Lungren (R-CA), chairman of the Committee on House Administration, in a prepared statement. “Providing easy access to legislative information increases constituent feedback and ultimately improves the legislative process.”

With these standards, “the House of Representatives took a tremendous step into the 21st century,” wrote Daniel Schuman, the Sunlight Foundation’s policy counsel and director of the Advisory Committee on Transparency.

“Three cheers to Chairman Dan Lungren, Ranking Member Bob Brady, members of the committee, and its staff for moving this important issue forward,” wrote Schuman. “As was discussed at the recent #hackthehouse conference, as well as in our longstanding Open House Project Report (pdf), there’s a lot more to do, but this is a major stride towards implementing Speaker Boehner and Majority Leader Cantor’s pledge to ‘publicly releasing the House’s legislative data in machine-readable formats.’ The Senate could do well by following this example, as could legislative support agencies like the Library of Congress and GPO.”

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