“Doesn’t Congress already make its information publicly accessible?”

That’s the question I hear most frequently when I tell people about the Congressional Data Coalition’s mission to get Congress to provide open access to its data. “Open access” is a complicated and loaded term in the digital information world, but at its core it involves three main components:

  1. The ability to find the data.
  2. The ability to use the data.
  3. The ability to re-purpose the data.

Truly achieving open access to congressional data will require more than just posting the information online: the information has to be in the correct format. Presenting data as gobs of text is seriously problematic, because machines cannot read it.

In today’s information ecosystem, information that cannot be parsed and read by machines is like building an all-terrain vehicle that can only drive straight forward. It might be able to get you where you need to go, but only if your destination lies straight ahead. And it completely defeats the purpose of being able to drive off-road.

So what can congressional data that is machine-readable do that facilitates open access?

  1. Finding the data: Search engines can search for the content stored within documents.
  2. Using the data: A variety of programs can access and display the data. Mobile apps can provide to-the-minute updates, APIs can scrape it and immediately display it on another website, programs can download it into spreadsheets, etc.
  3. Repurposing the data: Data can be run through programs that display it in charts, graphs, or elegant visualizations. Journalists and engaged citizens can also get timely access to the data that informs their output and ideas.

Plus there is a multitude of extra benefits. Machine-readable data is more accessible to people with disabilities, because screen readers can interpret it. It is also easier to preserve, because the data is not dependent on the software we use to access it, which will most likely become obsolete within the next 10 years (remember floppy disks? Word Perfect?). Because laws passed by Congress can remain in effect for decades, we have to keep the data that allows us to put those laws in context.