Mission and Purpose
GovTrack.us scrapes public information and pieces it together to follow the voting process and record from the House of Representative and for the Senate’s website, the status of legislation in the Library of Congress’ THOMAS database (now the Congress.gov website), and the schedules of hearings to discuss the legislation among multiple committee websites. It homogenizes and unifies dispersed parts of government's involvement in the legislative process, and produces easy to follow, and track, creates information about bills and clauses within bills, voting records for House and Senate members, analysis on bill content and partisanship, and multiple ways for constituents to get in touch with their legislators for individual bills.
Origins and Development
After dealing with the comprehensive but cumbersome Congressional records THOMAS database that the US Library of Congress, Joshua Tauberer began to think of a more streamlined way to present legislative information to average citizens. He asked the Library of Congress to share its data in 2001, but they had refused for more than 10 years, because, as he puts it “the Library’s law division does not see publishing data as a part of its mandate authorized by Congress, and getting both the House and the Senate to agree on updating the Library’s mandate is slow going” (Tauberer 2014, Why I Built GovTrack.us). It wasn’t until 2016 that Congress implemented a new legislative data publication system (Tauberer, GovTrack now actually uses open government data 2016), at which point GovTrack switched off their bulk data functions to switch to other areas of concern, calling it a win for open government (GovTrack 2016).
Because multiple parts of the government intervene in the making of a bill, coordinating their cooperation was also going to be hard. So in 2004, while still trying to engage with the government to get them to push their data out, he coded a website called GovTrack.us (part of his Civic Impulse organization) that scraped public information together and pieced it together.
Organizational Structure, Membership, and Funding
GovTrack.us is a project of Civic Impulse, LLC, an independent entity which is wholly owned by its operator and receives no funding in any form from outside organizations. Operating costs are managed through Google's AdSense, "which means in most cases we do not even know who is advertising on GovTrack at any given time", and crowdfunding. A 2015 Kickstarter campaign to fund the website outraised the desired 35,000 USD; 900 backers pledged $36,063. In 2016 the website moved to Patreon for crowdfunding, and increased its operating budget by about 33%. It now operates on a monthly pledge system, where 389 patrons contribute $2,613 per month to GovTrack.
Specializations, Methods and Tools
Joshua Tauberer is a key figure in the Open Government movement that seeks to apply principles of open source data to government. GovTrack.us frames its mandate in four multifaceted ways: sunlight as a disinfectant, democratization of primary legal materials, informing policy decisions through demographic data, and building consumer products of open-government for non-policy-wonks (Tauberer 2014, Applications for Open Government).
The information, automatically webscraped, is not just collected, but harmonized with an easy to follow timeline, the bills and disputes over the issues are summarized and explained while the original text is presented for anyone to scrutinize. In 2008 Tauberer won a contest for making it a staple of his website to link bills to Technorati blog posts discussing them (Technorati 2008) to contextualize what the political discussion around policy decisions in a way that increases accessibility and understanding for citizens with different levels of political engagement. As the project has grown it now produces its own content, though it still links to reputable news sources throughout its summaries. This reflects the open government ethos of “building something” (Tauberer 2014, Visualizing Metro Ridership) by transforming data that has been standardized into something new that provides useful insight; it also reflects the open source logic of building new layers of infrastructure on old ones (Larkin 2013).
Major Projects and Events
GovTrack contexualizes Congress members’ decision to bring a bill to the floor or to support it by mapping aggregating voting records and bibliographical information to infer their left-right ideology compared to members using principle components statistical analysis. It also uses text analysis to track changes to bills and follow ideas and proposals that travel between bills, or deletions of fragments. This is valuable because the US legislative amendments process allows Congress to use misleading titles or to attach unpopular ideas to popular bills. By keeping track of the process, GovTrack produces information that can be used to keep representatives accountable.
Using their legislation tracing mechanism, email and twitter alerts for updates on specific bills can be deployed, which are made easy to subscribe to depending on the user’s particular policy interests. By presenting the information in platforms that allow for easy sharing, GovTrack can help initiate a conversation between citizens about policy questions.
An additional link redirects to a project under the Civic Impulse umbrella called Phone Congress creates a short text for you to read while calling your representative or senator, who is identified by your residence location and whose phone number is provided to you, as well as some pointers for additional comments you might like to make.
A 2017 report highlights developments in GovTrack since the 2015 fundraising campaing, which includes the hiring of a staff writer and communications manager, who have produced 239 original articles for GovTrack, and the development of a tool which tracks clauses within bills and visualizes how these get adopted and attached to other bills that have a higher likelyhood of passing.
Press on GovTrack or which uses GovTrack data https://www.govtrack.us/press
Tauberer, Joshua. 2016. GovTrack now actually uses open government data. July 6. Accessed July 26, 2017. https://medium.com/civic-tech-thoughts-from-joshdata/govtrack-now-actual....
—. 2014. Open Government Data: The Book. https://opengovdata.io/2014/why-i-built-govtrackus/.
Technorati. 2008. Developer's Contest Winners. February 19. Accessed July 24, 2017. https://web.archive.org/web/20080219102850/http://technorati.com/develop....
Lead image: GovTrack https://goo.gl/LXE9mU