< Good Day, Sunshine

Transcript

Friday, March 09, 2007

BOB GARFIELD:
And I'm Bob Garfield. I vote, and when my congressperson does something, I kind of want to know. But it can be hard to find out if the media don't cover it – or it used to be hard to find out. This week, it got a lot easier. A new website called OpenCongress.org consolidates information about every Congress member and every piece of legislation, along with news and blog coverage of them - and metadata about what other visitors to the site are looking at.

OpenCongress was launched just in time for the upcoming Sunshine Week, an initiative launched by journalists three years ago to promote government transparency. One of the groups behind both Sunshine Week and OpenCongress.org is the Sunlight Foundation. Micah Sifry is their technology advisor, and he joins us now. Micah, welcome to the show.
MICAH SIFRY:
Good to be here.
BOB GARFIELD:
First of all, I simply [LAUGHS] can't believe that OpenCongress is the first opportunity to, you know, have a clearinghouse online for the activities of the Congress and, you know, your own representative. Are you really first?
MICAH SIFRY:
Well, no. To be fair, Congress has a website called THOMAS, where, if you are patient and comfortable with a lot of technical lingo, you can find your way to the text of a bill and you maybe can find your way to the tally of a vote.

What OpenCongress does is, first of all, make it much easier for you to search for a bill, track a vote, see your entire member’s voting record – that's something that's hard to do on THOMAS – see what everyone is saying about a piece of legislation, whether it's from news feeds that we bring in from Google or what bloggers are saying. So you can click on "bills" and you'll see the bills that are most being talked about.
BOB GARFIELD:
I'm guessing your target is people who care about issues and who do vote but haven't necessarily been able to dig very deeply into the process of legislation. Is that a fair assumption?
MICAH SIFRY:
That's definitely a fair assumption. A lot of the work of Congress is hidden in plain view. They put out on paper, in many cases, reports of their campaign financing or of who's sponsoring their trips and so on, but you can't necessarily get to it unless you are willing to make a trip to Washington, DC.

And so the idea of making it easier for people to access this information online and then do things with that––for example, now to be able to get an RSS feed for a bill so that you can see when changes happen to that bill, well, that's a step into the 21st century.
BOB GARFIELD:
So I click on a little orange button on your site that says "feed."
MICAH SIFRY:
Right. And it would enable you to get automatic updates whenever something new happens. We're hoping that eventually Congress will decide [LAUGHS] to do these things itself, but in the meantime, it's important to push forward, and, you know, hopefully they'll catch up.
BOB GARFIELD:
Of all the utilities on the site, what do you think is your killer app, the thing that will be most valuable to people like me?
MICAH SIFRY:
Well, the thing that I find most interesting is that you can get a glimpse here of which members of the Congress are generating heat and discussion in the blogosphere for whatever reason. And I think that that cumulative effect is citizens are now perched over the shoulder, breathing down the necks of members of Congress. Hopefully they'll be a little more attentive and responsive in return. And the site makes that visible.
BOB GARFIELD:
Politicians from both parties have long paid lip service to the notion of transparency.
MICAH SIFRY:
Mm-hmm [AFFIRMATIVE].
BOB GARFIELD:
And yet a lot of the workings of Congress are really shrouded behind the arcana of the way legislation is made, which is not necessarily a situation that [LAUGHS] politicians dislike.
MICAH SIFRY:
Mm-hmm [AFFIRMATIVE].
BOB GARFIELD:
What do you think congresspeople themselves think about this site?
MICAH SIFRY:
We are in a dialog with staffers on the Hill in trying to explore all the ways that the House could do a better job of sharing information with the public, using new technology. And I think that there's a willingness, there's an awareness.

I think the real question is whether members of Congress are prepared to be open with the public about the dirty business, the stuff that they do in terms of meeting with lobbyists, special favors they do for special interests.

We are pushing them, for example, to tell us what they do all day. At the end of the day, post your official work calendar online so we can see who you're meeting with. So far, three members of Congress are actually doing this. We've heard from some lobbyists who think this is a great idea because they can see who's lobbying who, and then other lobbyists think this is a terrible idea because they don't want their work to be revealed to the public.
BOB GARFIELD:
You are involved in this project as technology advisor to the Sunlight Foundation.
MICAH SIFRY:
Mm-hmm [AFFIRMATIVE].
BOB GARFIELD:
Are there any other Internet projects underway to make legislators more accountable to the people they represent?
MICAH SIFRY:
Oh, there are a lot of exciting things going on now, and the Sunlight Foundation is involved in a number of them. One is called Metavid, which is really a cutting-edge effort to make it easy not just to take video clips of members of Congress speaking but then do things with them – blog about them, add comments to them and so on.

And another project is to take the work of the Congressional Research Service – it's called the Open CRS Project. This is a 100-million-dollar-a-year research agency that does all kinds of fantastic reports for members of Congress. And we the people pay for those reports. We might as well also have access to them, too.
BOB GARFIELD:
Okay, Micah. Well, thank you so much.
MICAH SIFRY:
You're welcome.
BOB GARFIELD:
Micah Sifry is technology advisor to the Sunlight Foundation and cofounder of the Personal Democracy Forum, a group working with new technology and politics.