This week is Global Legislative Openness Week, and New Media Rights has joined the Sunlight Foundation and many other public interest groups in calling on state legislatures in the United States to improve the availability and accessibility of state legislative data.
Here's the full text of the letter, and a link to the letter on the Sunlight Foundation's website.
Dear Presiding Officer,
We, the undersigned, write to encourage you to publish information produced by your legislature in a way that empowers constituents to understand and engage with your work to the maximum extent possible, thereby demonstrating your commitment to transparency and openness.
In recognition of Global Legislative Openness Week, the international community of parliamentary monitoring organizations is calling on all legislatures in the world to make parliamentary data open by default. According to the Declaration on Parliamentary Openness, ‘open by default’ means:
- the proactive release of data,
- in open and structured formats, and
- free of charge.
Providing legislative data in open and structured formats is essential to ensuring that citizens are able to access their governments as fully as possible. Around the world, parliamentary monitoring organizations are developing software to make it easier for constituents to get in touch with their representatives (and vice versa), to learn how their representatives have voted, or to develop customized alert systems to follow legislative actions. In the United States, a number of organizations depend onunobstructed access to legislative data in order to connect regular people with the legislative processes that affect their lives so substantially. For example, the Sunlight Foundation’s OpenStates project, which collects and presents legislative data from all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, often reaches over 150,000 people on a monthly basis with information about the bills and votes taken in their legislatures.
The United States is lucky to have many state governments proactivelyproviding legislative data: information about their representatives, bills, roll-call votes, and committees. What is also important, however, is providing data in open and structured format. Open formats are important because they increase access by people who do not own specialized proprietary software. These formats exist across an array of data types; a common example cited is CSV in lieu of XLS for spreadsheets. Structured formats are important because they make data simpler to use in programming. While HTML and PDF are important for human readers, these formats are difficult to convert to new uses. Providing data in structured formats, such as CSV, XML and JSON, increases opportunities for reuse and enables more advanced analysis.
While most states make some elements of their state legislative datasets available, some states are providing true leadership by making this data available in open and structured formats. New Hampshire makes all of its legislative data available in CSV format. Georgia and Washington provide nearly all of this data through an API. New Jersey makes its full legislative database available for download in structured format. In addition, Arkansas, California, Indiana, Kansas, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, New York, Ohio, Texas and Virginia all provide access to some of their necessary legislative data in these machine-processable formats.
In recognition of the global importance of open access to legislative data, we call on all US state legislatures to follow the example of leader states and make their key legislative datasets available in open and structured formats.
- States should make bills available in machine-processable formats.
When bills are not available in machine-processable formats, organizations that publish this bill data must write software to “scrape” the information from its existing format. This is difficult and reduces the usability of this data, lessening the total number of people who are able to access it.
- States should make information about representatives and committees available in machine-processable formats.
Without machine-processable information about representatives and committees, it becomes much more difficult for organizations using this information to help constituents identify their legislators and connect them to the proper points of contact for different issues.
- States should make roll-call votes available in machine-processable formats.
Some states that make bill information available in structured formats make legislators’ votes available only within a PDF, which makes it more difficult to discover how legislators are voting on recorded votes.
In line with what is being asked of legislatures all around the world, we ask you as a state legislature to make your public legislative datasets available in formats that promote use and reuse of this fundamental resource.
As partners in your efforts, the global community of parliamentary monitoring organizations stands ready to discuss your concerns, collaborate on overcoming technical or institutional challenges, or to help create a plan of action to strengthen legislative transparency. If you have any further questions, please contact Emily Shaw at email@example.com.
Supervisor Mark Farrell, San Francisco Board of Supervisors & Free Law Founder
Council Member Ben Kallos, New York City Council & Free Law Founder
Professor Lynda Powell, University of Rochester
Professor Gerald Gamm, University of Rochester
Dazza Greenwood, MIT Media Lab
Greg Bloom, Open Referral Initiative
Jonathan Feldman, CIO of Ashville, NC
Ben Trevino, Hawai’i Open Data/Common Cause Hawai’i
Professor Conor M. Dowling, University of Mississippi
Professor Janet B. Johnson, University of Delaware
Professor David Schultz, Hamline University
Professor Daniel Smith, University of Florida
Professor Patrick Flavin, Baylor University
Professor Boris Shor, Georgetown University
Professor Carl Klarner, Harvard University
Professor Daniel Lewis, Siena College
Rebecca Kreitzer, PhD Candidate, University of Iowa
Erica Raleigh, Detroit, Mich.
Traci Hughes, Board of Ethics and Government Accountability, Washington, DC
Burt Lum, Open Hawai’i
Professor Debra Galant, Montclair University
Kurt R. Metzger, Mayor, City of Pleasant Ridge, Michigan
Professor Jonathan Justice, University of Delaware
Professor Michael Leo Owens, Emory University
Jason Williams, Member, Utah State Transparency Advisory Board