Context is people

As usual, an insightful post from John Udell about what it takes to make sense of government data – or other data – online.
Udell has been covering the emerging array of tools to expose government and legislative data online. Then he tried to use the tools to follow a bill he cared about:

What I found is that, even with power tools like GovTrack and MAPLight, it’s really hard to make those connections. That’s partly because we lack good mechanisms to track the flow of bits of legislative language through an evolving assortment of bills, and to relate those fragments to the activities and interests of their sponsors.But it’s also because a novice who tries to read and interpret this record lacks context.

In order to understand the progress of a bill, you don’t just need a bill number and a tool to show differences in document versions — you need to understand committee process, legislative calendars, procedural maneuvers; written and unwritten rules; social and political dynamics.
Udell points to tools like GovTrack which are attempting to create a substrate for communities following bills. I’m seeing a trend that is fascinating and a little bit lower tech. National blogs like FireDogLake, local blogs like TransBayBlog, social network communities like the Get Fisa Right network in, provide their communities with more detailed context on the dynamics of legislation and the process of adding ingredients to the sausage. In the context of a community, members learn more about the legislative process than civics 101 class, or than getting email from the Sierra Club.
The data-driven tools that Udell envisions, where the system allows citizens who are tracking the same bill to find each other, are cool, visionary, good right and true. A lower tech solution is here today. Bill numbers are good search terms. Google a bill number and you’ll find resources on the bill. The ability to google for a bill number, find a great blog and discussion, and engage in some informed networking and activism, is here today.

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