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.

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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.

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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