Awesome Stuff: Making GovTrack Even More Awesome

from the how-a-bill-becomes-a-law dept

If you pay any sort of ongoing attention to Congress, you're probably familiar with GovTrack, the extremely useful online resource created by Joshua Tauberer in 2004, containing robust info on the status of all the bills that hit the floors of the House and the Senate. It's a fantastic tool, and today we're looking at a crowdfunding push to make it even better by hiring a full-time researcher to add additional context and analysis to the bills and votes being tracked.

The Good

Until very recently, GovTrack was fully automated and had no staff — which is why one man's pet project has been going strong for over a decade without much if anything in the way of revenue. But Joshua knows there's lots more the site could be doing, and recently hired an intern to start testing out a big new addition to GovTrack: researchers who can closely follow the most important bills and dig into them deeper than the algorithms can, providing commentary and analysis plus readable summaries of legislation, and reporting on the underlying political context. To that end, they've also launched GovTrack Insider as a Medium page, which already features a bunch of posts on various important bills and votes from the last few months.

The Kickstarter goal is to upgrade from an intern to a full-time researcher on a six-month contract — or two as a stretch goal. This could really take the already-useful GovTrack to a whole new level.

The Bad

While I don't by any means think this is a bad idea, there are still a few potential pitfalls. The first is that it's not clear how this one-time fundraising goal can/will translate into something ongoing. A researcher can do a whole lot in six months, but the ongoing flow of bills through Congress requires ongoing attention with no end in sight. Will we be looking at another Kickstarter for the next congressional session? Or is there some plan to secure new revenue streams with the expanded GovTrack? Either way, if this project is as useful to people as it's likely to be, some will surely be happy to keep paying.

The other, perhaps more critical, pitfall is politicization. Once you move from automatically tracking raw data to actually writing up summaries and analyses, it's almost inevitable that you'll have to start taking political/ideological sides from time-to-time, no matter how committed you might be to neutrality or objectivity. It might prove very difficult to expand GovTrack in this way without beginning to be seen as an at-least-slightly partisan publication rather than a wholly neutral tool for anyone to use — though, that doesn't mean it's impossible.

The Rewarding

There are some very interesting rewards available for backers of this project (and the choice to link the dollar amounts for the various tiers to important Congress-related numbers is a neat one). At lower levels, backers can get in on webinars and group chats that explore Congressional issues and provide advice on political advocacy, while the higher tiers offer the ability to get custom summaries and analyses written of bills that you choose.

But perhaps the most attractive (or at least the most fun) options are those that take advantage of the research intern's other skill: art. At various tiers, he'll draw you a custom caricature of any Representative or Senator that you choose. No word on if you get to dictate how flattering or unflattering said caricature is, though.

Filed Under: awesome stuff, congress
Companies: govtrack


Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread


  • icon
    Pocal (profile), 1 Aug 2015 @ 10:15am

    In Canada?

    Does anyone know if there is a GovTrack like site for Canada?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 1 Aug 2015 @ 1:36pm

    Another issue is if we expand the project the next six months will we have the same researcher who already has the background experience and knowledge of context to report on issues or will we be switching from one researcher to another? What if one researcher later decides s/he wants to do something else. Then a new person has to come and start from scratch in terms of his/her knowledge and experience. What if there is a time period that a researcher doesn't get funded and so they get another job in the interim. Then when funding does become available it may have to be a new researcher all over again.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 1 Aug 2015 @ 1:39pm

      Re:

      Finally the crazy conspiracy theory side of me says that we must be very selective and careful choosing a researcher because they maybe secretly bought and hence may end up shying away from / ignoring (or being easy on) certain issues. Though unlikely it is a possibility we should consider.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    bursting bubbles, 1 Aug 2015 @ 1:49pm

    How is this valid per Kickstarter policy?

    I'm all for this GovTracker, and more research on Congress, but how does raising funds to hire a "staff" researcher not violate Kickstarter's policies? A Kickstarter project is supposed to be just that, a project, not a way to fund your operations per se. Just curious, cause, really, I could use some funding to support a research assistant too!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Leigh Beadon (profile), 1 Aug 2015 @ 2:17pm

      Re: How is this valid per Kickstarter policy?

      The project is expanding GovTrack to include something it never has before: original analysis and plain-language summaries of all the bills. If you look at their budget breakdown on the page, the money is also covering stuff like office space -- the researcher is just the crux of it all. And I see nothing in the Kickstarter rules that would prevent this in any way -- have you read them?

      You can use Kickstarter to get yourself a research assistant if you want -- as long as it's for a creative project that you will share with others.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        me, 2 Aug 2015 @ 9:05am

        Re: Re: How is this valid per Kickstarter policy?

        "Have you read them?"? WTF? Is this Good Morning Sacramento now?

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Leigh Beadon (profile), 2 Aug 2015 @ 11:32am

          Re: Re: Re: How is this valid per Kickstarter policy?

          Not entirely sure what that means but: I am just curious. You seemed certain that this was in violation of their rules, and seemed somewhat gleeful about that fact based on your choice of the name "bursting bubbles" and your snarky (or so I read it) comment about wanting to use Kickstarter to get yourself an assistant. And since it's entirely clear from even a cursory glance that this project in no way violates KS rules, I had to wonder if you'd actually read them before getting on your high horse.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Josh Tauberer, 1 Aug 2015 @ 2:18pm

      Re: How is this valid per Kickstarter policy?

      Every Kickstarter is a way to fund operations. People gotta get paid. The difference is whether there is a tangible product or not. Our product is GovTrack Insider.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    toyotabedzrock (profile), 2 Aug 2015 @ 1:57am

    Didn't sunlight foundation already do some of this?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Josh Tauberer, 2 Aug 2015 @ 4:35am

      Re:

      Sunlight's congress tools were built on top of GovTrack's open data. So to the extent there's overlap, you'd have to ask them why they used GovTrack's data to do things GovTrack was already doing.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Caricatures Ireland, 2 Aug 2015 @ 5:19am

    Any samples of the caricatures?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here



Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter




Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Close

Add A Reply

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here



Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter




Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Follow Techdirt
Techdirt Gear
Shop Now: Copying Is Not Theft
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Recent Stories
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads

Close

Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.