Contacting Congress Just Got Easier - InformationWeek

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Government // Open Government

Contacting Congress Just Got Easier

Electronic Frontier Foundation and more than 100 volunteer developers are working on a tool that pairs public domain data with free software interfaces.

Top 10 Government IT Innovators
Top 10 Government IT Innovators
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The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and more than 100 volunteer developers have created a public domain database to simplify the process of contacting 535 members of Congress.

The EFF, a non-profit digital rights group based in San Francisco, last week called on those with programming skills and knowledge of GitHub, a code sharing service, to help test a tool and populate an open data format that would make it easier for people to contact members of Congress. Every Congress member has a special contact form, and each form is different. While some use a CAPTCHA program, others require constituents to choose a topic from a dropdown list.

EFF partnered with and the Sunlight Foundation to create a prototype of the new action tool, which uses free, customizable software to send electronic written messages to legislators by reverse engineering their contact forms. However, EFF required help from developers to test each Congressional website. "You need only basic programming proficiency to be able to help us generate the YAML files that make up the contact-congress dataset," EFF said in its instructions to participants.

[Agencies plan "open data roundtables" with private sector users of government data to encourage new business opportunities. Read: Feds Seek To Expand Open Data]

The response EFF received was overwhelming. A project that was expected to take months, only took two days to complete. So far, 152 contributors have made 2,683 commits to the GitHub repository, according to the project's page on the open-source collaboration site.

"For EFF, this means a better way for our friends and members to speak out when our rights are threatened -- and that means more technology users making their voices heard in Congress," EFF's activism director Rainey Reitman said in an email.

Sample of Congressional contact form developed on GitHub by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Sample of Congressional contact form developed on GitHub by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

GitHub shows that the majority of the contact forms have been fully tested, with only a few remaining. Among them are Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) -- both of whom currently display a status success rate of 0%. EFF said some legislators "have buggy forms" and a solution is in the works.

While advocacy organizations had to use third-party vendors with proprietary software in the past to reach out to Congress members, there is now a foundation for a system that pairs public domain data with free software interfaces, says Reitman. The EFF envisions open government and advocacy organizations using the public dataset to create tools for emailing Congress.  

"Who knows how many new tools will be built on top of this dataset? This isn't just a win for EFF, it's a win for democracy, which functions best when members of the public can communicate concerns to elected officials," Reitman says.

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Elena Malykhina began her career at The Wall Street Journal, and her writing has appeared in various news media outlets, including Scientific American, Newsday, and the Associated Press. For several years, she was the online editor at Brandweek and later Adweek, where she ... View Full Bio

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User Rank: Author
4/23/2014 | 4:23:26 PM
Re: Effective end result, no govt contractors/$$$$$$ necessary
What coders did for EFF and what contractors had to do w/ are two different extremes. But your point remains well taken: Taxpayers are paying a ridiculous premium for projects and coding that could be done for far less.
Thomas Claburn
Thomas Claburn,
User Rank: Author
4/23/2014 | 2:58:14 PM
Re: Empowering citizens
The issue isn't reaching members of Congress. It's getting members of Congress to act on your concerns. And that takes $$$ rather than email.
User Rank: Ninja
4/22/2014 | 3:16:23 PM
Effective end result, no govt contractors/$$$$$$ necessary
Very nice write up of this endeavor, Elena.  What the EFF and the Sunlight Foundation created in a matter of 96 hours from volunteer coding is impossibly impressive when compared to the epic fail and billion dollar boondoggle of the HHS dot gov site.  It just goes to prove that spending boatloads of taxpayer monies does not always equal quality or even basic operability.  
User Rank: Author
4/22/2014 | 1:27:04 PM
Empowering citizens
This tool is good news for citizens and democracy.  One suspects however, that lobbyists will be the most adept at leveraging it. Congressional staffers will probably need some new tools of their own to deal with the deluge of new correspondence.

Lorna Garey
Lorna Garey,
User Rank: Author
4/22/2014 | 11:53:29 AM
Great ...
Now we can take the "Deport Justin Bieber" petition campaign to the next level by easily contacting every legislator. Win!
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