|A New THOMAS - saturday 2007-04-28 1758||last modified 2007-05-06 1039|
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Being an engaged citizen of this country requires some awareness of what legislation transpires on Capitol Hill. The federal government, always a readily available target for accusations of inefficiency, is well behind the technology curve for making that information available to the rest of the country.
The main entry point appears to be THOMAS, the Library of Congress's web interface into the Congressional record, including a daily-updated view of legislation as it moves through the ratification process. THOMAS is a web application in the oldest sense of the word: you fill out badly styled forms that POST (read: unbookmarkable results) a fairly incomprehensible chunk of data and return badly styled HTML, often with highly pertinent aspects of results linked to a temporary subresult instead of included in the full answer. The results to your search, if they remotely appear to be bookmarkable, are actually transient and disappear after the system feels you're done. While THOMAS is conceptually a gift to the people, in practice it might as well be a flaming paper bag of excrement left on the porch. I can look at it, but it's a smelly mess that's garbage as soon as the rather unimpressive show's over.
It will probably be another ten years before THOMAS sees any real change - and will it matter by then? - but there are really only a couple of things that should change that would make THOMAS a much friendlier piece of citizenry empowerment.
Number one, make the queries bookmarkable. There is no reason for any organization with resources at its disposal to continue this foolishness about temporary search results that disappear after a couple minutes. This could be immediately served by eliminating POST and moving to GET.
Number two, document that query interface. It can be reverse engineered, but I have yet to find an explanation anywhere, in the government's pitiable documentation or in an intrepid hacker's notes, that really says how to form a query without going through the web interface. For instance, one potentially successful query argument (try at your own risk) is "
Lastly, give the option of returning that data in a structured form and don't change it. Make it an XML Schema tree if it must be, though I tend to believe RDF/XML would be a more useful option. Provide new forms over time, but don't cut off the old ones.
Turn THOMAS away from its decrepit roots and into a RESTful, query-able web service. We want the data. Some of us so much that we just do it ourselves. Hopefully the Open House Project, part of the Sunlight Foundation, will help make these and many wonderful things possible by furthering transparency and data availability in government processes.
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