House Transparency Conference Showcases Data Modernization Projects


This past Thursday, the House Administration Committee hosted the 6th Annual Legislative Data and Transparency Conference in the heart of Washington at the Capitol Visitors Center. The conference brought individuals from government agencies together with data users and transparency advocates to foster a conversation about the use of legislative data, how agencies use technology, and how they can use it better in the future.

The annual conference has played a crucial role in garnering momentum for open legislative data projects, like the adoption of Congressional data standards for legislative information, which Speaker Paul Ryan endorsed at the 2016 Legislative Data and Transparency Conference. The Data Coalition continues to support three legislative proposals that would modernize the way bills, legislative materials, and Statutes at Large are drafted and published.

The annual conference highlights on-going modernization efforts by the House Clerk’s office, the Government Printing Office (GPO), and the Bulk Data Task Force. Here is a summary of three announcements that were presented at the conference that overlap with the Data Coalition’s advocacy goals:

1. GPO launched a new Hub for editing and drafting legislation

The Bulk Data Task Force panel unveiled the Legislative Branch Innovation Hub. The Hub highlights legislative branch activities that uses technology to cultivate collaboration, foster data standardization, and increase transparency. The new website includes information to help law-making bodies innovate, communicate, and legislate effectively. The site is still in its infancy and was built with GitHub Pages. The Data Coalition is highly supportive of this collaborative effort between public and private entities to foster government transparency and improved data usage.

2. Sunsetting FDsys

The GPO’s Federal Digital System (FDsys) is slated to be retired in December 2018 and will be replaced with govinfo, which is now out of beta and currently contains an extensive archive of digitized federal documents, as well as the President’s budget. The system is constantly being updated, and GPO plans to implement user recommended improvements. GPO details user suggested in their release notes, such as the inclusion of a new, user friendly pop up windows allowing users to download multiple Code of Federal Regulation (CFR) volumes, which help improve the user experience, streamline the system, and make finding specific information on the site easier.

3. Open data for Statues

The GPO discussed their current effort to put together a federal statute compilation collection, providing a uniform set of laws in a data taxonomy known as U.S. Legislative Markup (USLM) to enable downstream processes. Implementation of this system is in phase one, and currently GPO is working to make select Statute Compilations (COMPS) in PDF available on govinfo and ingest legacy CMOP DTD XML and locator files into govinfo. During phase two, which will begin in Fiscal Year 2019, GPO will convert legacy COMP DTD XML into USLM XML and provide it as bulk data. The GPO’s initiative to draft and publish statues in open data format closely mirrors a legislative measure that the Data Coalition has supported; the Statutes at Large Modernization Act (H.R. 1729) led by Rep. David Brat (VA-7-R) would mandate all Statutes at Large be published in a standardized, machine-readable format.

This measure was included as an appropriations item by Congress in the Fiscal Year 2018 Omnibus appropriations package. The House Legislative Branch appropriations explanatory report included language supporting the conversion of all historical Statutes into a machine readable format (see H. Rept. 115-199):

Statutes at Large. — The Committee continues to support the work of the Legislative Branch Bulk Data Task Force, particularly in its efforts to convert Statutes at Large into USLM XML format. Currently, the GPO is in the process of converting all Statutes at Large from the 108th Congress forward into USLM XML format. Also available online in searchable PDF format are all Statutes at Large from 1951– 2002. The Committee directs the GPO to assess the costs associated with converting Statutes at Large from 1789-2002 into the USLM XML format. 

The GPO is currently working through how they will fully comply with this mandate.

All told, the Legislative Transparency Conference 2018 showcased a number of exciting innovations in government data standardization and transparency. For more information, you can see this comprehensive recap blog by the Congressional Data Coalition’s Daniel Schuman. The Data Coalition is eager to continue working with the Bulk Data Task Force and Congressional stakeholders to adopt standardized data formats for all bills, as well as legislative, legal and committee materials to enable a more transparent and functional legislative body for all citizens.