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Web Sites Push For More Transparency and Accessibility In Government

OpenCongress and MetaVid give citizens an open window into government activities.

One unemployment bill before the U.S. Congress has generated more than 17,000 comments, thanks to one of many sites using technology to increase transparency, accountability, and participation in government.

OpenCongress aims to make everyone a political insider. It gives readers access to more detail and depth of information than traditional news stories. The free, open source, nonpartisan site does so by combining traditional news stories, summaries of bills, sponsors, status, roll calls on the latest issues put up for votes, and an area for user comments.

The site is a project of the Sunlight Foundation and the Participatory Politics Foundation. David Moore, executive director of PPF, spoke about the site at the Personal Democracy Forum conference in New York on Monday.

He said there is "a disconnect" between traditional reporting on political issues and the substance, with few stories pointing to or linking to the text of the bills they cover. Congress' own digital library system for bills, Thomas, provides the full text of the bills, but the language is arcane and inaccessible to some.

OpenCongress provides simpler language, context, and analysis by including blogs, news stories, and message boards. It uses Google News, Google Blog Search, and Technorati to scour the Web for political news. The site also ranks issues in terms of popularity and gives readers an idea of which bills are most contentious.

Action calendars and personalized pages allow visitors to track specific bills and receive reminders when topics they care about are scheduled for votes.

Another site featured during the conference is MetaVid, an open source online domain that archives video from proceedings in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. Citizens who want to see what their representatives said on a specific issue can search for and play the specific footage they see.

"I can set it up to watch every time my senator mentions peace," said Michael Dale, the main developer of the MetaVidWiki software and a major participant in the project.

Bloggers can embed and annotate any clip onto a Web page for discussion. They can also link back for the full day's discussion to provide broader context. The clips are open to all media and can be used in mashups via Web APIs.

Greg Elin, chief data architect for the Sunlight Foundation, said that since projects like OpenCongress are open source, people around the world are taking the code and applying it to other governments, like the state of Massachusetts.

Ellen Miller, co-founder and executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, said the next step is pushing those in public office to report their activities sooner. Lobbying reports come out four times a year, which means the information from sites like Congress.org can be months old.

"I was in a meeting with lobbyists last week and asked, 'How many of you have BlackBerrys?' " she said. "Everyone raised their hand, and I said, 'You should be reporting daily, with texts.' "

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