This week has seen some remarkably silly twists in the story of bulk access to legislative data from THOMAS (reported succinctly by Rob Richards, with links from that article to many others that tell the story in greater detail). As usual when this particular fight starts up, I have an almost uncontrollable urge to say, “WHOA, WAIT, STOP! I don’t give a rat’s ass about accountability, but I care a lot about bulk data”. Because let’s face it, folks — the bulk-legislative-data story is almost always told from the perspective of people whose primary interest is in using that data to promote greater government “transparency”, which almost always translates to “holding the bastards responsible for whatever they did that we consider bad”, or “scaring the hell out of the voters so they’ll rush toward whatever we consider good”. There may be good reason to do those things, which are political acts. There are, equally, a thousand absolutely apolitical reasons to offer bulk access to legislative information, and they tend to get lost or overlooked in the general din around accountability.
Think for a minute: accountability is just the backward-looking part of the story. Even better, for some audiences, would be to have some idea of what Congress has done or is likely to do for some entirely non-political business purpose. Think, for example, of non-profit organizations that are heavily dependent on contributions and bequests. It’s important for them to know what’s going on with estate taxes, nonprofit tax exemption and so on. And by “what’s going on”, I definitely mean not only what happened already, but what’s pending, who’s supporting it, what the language is likely to be, who’s amending what, and so on. That predictive value also exists for, well, anyone else who’s taxed, or regulated in ways that are subject to direction or manipulation by Congress, and so on. From that perspective, accountability is only half the story. Monitoring and prediction are important too.
Aside from accountability and predictive value, there are no doubt ten million other “takes” on bulk legislative data as it’s seen by niche markets of all kinds. But I tend to stress predictive value because it supports an analogy I think particularly apt. Through the mechanism of the National Weather Service, government provides bulk data that can be sampled, sliced, diced and repurposed by a variety of commercial and non-commercial actors. And just as you could say that the NWS provides data that allows people to make their own weather predictions, and to create weather-related services, bulk legislative data can enable the creation of services that predict the climate for business, for social innovation, and for all of the things that legislation touches. It’s common to talk in some vague way about bulk data “creating a climate” that “fosters innovation” or “enables new products and services”. That’s unfortunately vague, the more so because the specifics are astonishing. In addition to the usual services related to accountability or to (say) environmental issues, there are very narrowcast services out there — my particular favorite is legislation related to online poker, which is apparently very closely monitored by a lot of people who report it in many publications, online and off. There are no doubt a kajillion newsletters and niches like it.
Whatever your favorite niche, it’s clear that accountability and the more extreme version of that sport, playing political “gotcha!”, are only two among many products and perspectives that could usefully be created from bulk data. The accountability argument is important. But I’m far from sure that it’s the most compelling one for ordinary people. If we imagine bulk data from THOMAS as a data service that supports different takes on the past, present, and future climate created by legislation, the public case becomes compelling in an entirely new way. Clearly it’s time for all of us to tell our representatives that this is about more than finding new ways to bug them.
PS: A rather less colloquial and more reasonable-sounding version of this, along with a few other arguments, can be found in testimony I gave to the Committee on House Administration about a year ago.
PPS: I lack time and patience to write at length about the reasons why concerns about so-called “authenticity” are a baseless distraction from the main issue. I’ll charitably assume that those expressing them are not simply trying to create obstructions that protect someone’s current business model, and say that from a technical perspective it is quite possible to create systems that will guarantee the textual accuracy of anything taken from the bulk system.
PPPS: No rats were harmed in the creation of this blog post.