The Government Printing Office in a press release today announced a success story in the use of the Application Programming Interface (API) for Federal Register. It is certainly interesting and illustrative of how an API can be used to deliver information to a particular community of interest, but I think you may also find it unexpectedly unusual. A researcher used the FR API to create a tracking system for polar bear protection documents.
GPO AND OFR SHOWCASE OPEN GOVERNMENT SUCCESS STORY
WASHINGTON-The U.S. Government Printing Office (GPO) and the National Archives' Office of the Federal Register (OFR) report a success story from the Application Programming Interface (API) for FederalRegister.gov. GPO and OFR introduced the API in August 2011, enabling information technology developers to create new applications for regulatory information published in the Federal Register. A researcher utilized the API to create a tracking system for polar bear protection documents. The API tool automatically grabs Federal Register items that mention polar bears from 1994 to present, displays the items in a formatted list with browsing capabilities, and links back to the full text on FederalRegister.gov.
Link to Polar Bear Feed: http://polarbearfeed.etiennebenson.com/
"This is another example of how GPO and OFR continue to find ways in achieving the goal of making Government information more transparent and giving users the ability to adapt Federal Register data to their own needs," said Public Printer Bill Boarman.
"We are thrilled to see the use of the API source material to develop a live feed on the subject of polar bears. This is precisely how we hoped this information would be used when we made it available to the public. We couldn't be more gratified," said Director of the Federal Register Ray Mosley.
The print and online versions of the Federal Register are the official daily publication for rules, proposed rules, and notices of Federal agencies and organizations, as well as executive orders and other Presidential documents.
No doubt folks have seen at least 1 of the growing video remixes of Hitler in the bunker. Well here's a new one from Critical Commons that highlights digital scholarship, open courseware, and fair use. Nicely done.
Critical Commons provides information about current copyright law and its alternatives in order to facilitate the writing and dissemination of best practices and fair use guidelines for scholarly and creative communities. Critical Commons also functions as a showcase for innovative forms of electronic scholarship and creative production that are transformative, culturally enriching and both legally and ethically defensible. At the heart of Critical Commons is an online tool for viewing, tagging, sharing, annotating and curating media within the guidelines established by a given community. Our goal is to build open, informed communities around media-based teaching, learning and creativity, both inside and outside of formal educational environments.
As noted here earlier, Sunlight Labs has announced the three finalists in its "Apps for America 2" competition. One of those is DataMasher which enables users to "have a little fun" with government data "by creating mashups to visualize them in different ways and see how states compare on important issues. Users can combine different data sets in interesting ways and create their own custom rankings of the states."
A post about this on slashdot prompted a reply, Lies, Damned Lies, and DataMasher that worries that "in practice DataMasher would end up mostly generating a lot of bad information." The reply continues:
The site as it exists now seems to encourage you to think about issues in a really simplistic way (with a simple arithmetic combination of two numbers on a state by state basis) that's going to mislead more often than inform. The devil is always in the spurious correlations, and DataMasher just doesn't give you ability to get at that sort of thing (nor do most people have the understanding of statistics anyway).
...Statistics are extremely useful in determining public policy, but only if used carefully. There's already so much bad use of statistics in our public policy debates, and DataMasher seems perfectly designed (unintentionally, I'm sure) to exacerbate the problem.
I am very sympathetic to this argument but would add an additional caveat to it. Any tool can be misused or used badly. Decades ago, some statisticians were upset when commercial software like SAS and SPSS were being introduced because it allowed anyone to run a regression without knowing what it was or how to do the math or whether they were regressing variables that made sense. While it is certainly true that the design of tools can encourage misuse or bad use, it is also true, I think, that even well-designed tools can be used badly and even bad tools may be better than no tools because they can encourage imagination and exploration and curiosity. Those can lead to better, more informed questions and analysis.
For libraries and service providers there is another side to this story. As tools like DataMasher become more available and easier to use, it actually creates new challenges for information service providers. Rather than making our jobs easier, the availability of these kinds of tools actually makes our jobs more complex. Rather than pointing at a reliable book of statistics, created by government statisticians and published by the government, we now have 'raw' sources and sources that require more understanding and skill to use and interpret accurately and responsibly. Where once we tried to make sure that the people we helped looked at footnotes and table headers so they understood statistics, now we are faced with helping people use raw data and helping them produce their own statistics. Every library will have to decide on what level of service to provide in situations like this. No library should avoid addressing the service implications of the availability of new sources of information -- no matter how good or bad they are.
Legistalker - The latest online activity of Congress Members.
Legistalker makes it easy for you to stay on top of what your elected officials say and how they vote.
Legistalker was created by Forum One Communications as an entry for the Apps for America competition. The ever-growing database is updated every 20 seconds, and relies on data from Twitter, YouTube, Capitol Words, literally hundreds of different news sources, and others.
I'm going to have way too much fun browsing through the project proposals. Casting my votes, though, is already proving difficult... Using user downtime? Massive mashup calendars? Warnings for hidden corporate abuses every time I make an online purchase?
And of course, many of these envisioned projects would not even be imaginable were it not for widely available and mostly reliable government information data sources.
An interactive web service created by federal scientists on the University of Arizona campus in cooperation with the state of Arizona Department of Water Resources with funding from the U.S. Geological Survey "brings formerly hard-to-get water information as close as a mouse click." (UA-based scientists make water data easy to find on Net, by B. Poole, Tucson Citizen, 03.14.2008)
Data for creating and presenting the layers of information on ground-water conditions came from the USGS National Water Information System (NWIS) and the Arizona Department of Water Resources Groundwater Site Inventory). A document describes how the site was created: An Online Interactive Map Service for Displaying Ground-Water Conditions in Arizona, By Fred D Tillman, Stanley A. Leake, Marilyn E. Flynn, Jeffrey T. Cordova, and Kurt T. Schonauer. USGS, National Water Availability and Use Program, Open-File Report 2007-1436, U.S. Geological Survey, Reston, Virginia 2007.
The Geological Survey map complements Arizona Wells, produced by Sustainability of semi-Arid Hydrology and Riparian Areas (SAHARA), a University of Arizona-based group that aims to foster information exchange. Arizona Wells includes much of the data used in the Geological Survey map and water quality data from the Arizona Department of Water Resources.
One of the reasons we need open, re-usable, downloadable government information is so that sites like these can be built to create new information and to make information that was once hard to use, easier to use. As the Tucson Citizen article says, "Before such interactive maps, the public had to find the data, then interpret the numbers and codes in the databases."
I've posted about this earlier at my home blog, but I thought it was worth a revisit and fuller entry because it did not get the attention it deserved. The Sunlight Foundation, the group that has fostered Congresspedia , the Open House Project, & OpenCongress.org, held a government "mashup" competition in April. In May, the winner, Uninfluence , was announced and won $2000. What follows is a list of the winner and the top 5 finalists. The 'project descriptions' are copied from the Sunlight project page. Additional entries can also be found there.
Developed by Skye Bender-deMoll and Greg Michalec.
Project Description: Uninfluence, is an interactive information visualization of state level political contribution data.
CityCon (First Runner Up)
Project Description: CityCon allows you to find detailed information about any member of the current 110th U.S. Congress.
OpenHearings Live (Second Runner Up)
Project Description: A mini-site of schedules for current and future Senate committee hearings. Includes links to live audio and video of hearings in progress, anRSS feed of live hearings, iCalendar schedules for all committees and hearings, and the ability to import the "Live Hearing" view into your personalized Google homepage.
EchoDitto's Congressional Similarity Visualizer
Project Description: Java applet that lets users explore which legislators vote most similarly to one another. (Detailed explanation on the site provides background on the statistical analysis the visualization represents.)
Second Life Congressional Info
Project Description: A mashup of the Sunlight APIs with Second Life, creating an interactive info center (kiosk) at the virtual Capitol Hill - a pro-bono educational area - in Second Life. Visitors can (and do!) access the information in a venue where they can discuss the information in the context of politics, policy and place.
Project Description: Data Visualization showing the relationship between members of Congress and political access committees. (Watchingscreencast and reading description highly recommended.)
-- Tim Dennis
Today our friends at the Sunlight Foundation made the following announcement:
Sunlight would like to invite you to test out our new search engine of federal documents called LOUIS -- the Library Of Unified Information Sources -- at http://www.louisdb.org. There's a screencast available on its homepage to help familiarize you with the site.
LOUIS makes it easy to search from a collection of over 300,000 documents from seven sets of federal documents dating back to 2001:
- the Congressional Record,
- congressional bills and resolutions,
- congressional reports,
- congressional hearings,
- GAO reports,
- presidential documents
- Federal Register.
LOUIS, which updates its document depository daily, even allows you to set up a "standing query" as an RSS feed, to get alerts every time Congress or the executive branch takes action that references the subject of the initial query.
In addition, LOUIS delivers these federal documents in an electronic, printable, text format for easier use. LOUIS also lets you access all the pages of a debate in the Congressional Record printer-friendly Web page.
We've also made available the LOUIS API -- Web access
methods that any computer programmer can use to build their own application using the database and the computer code that powers LOUIS.
Test it out - we encourage your feedback.
The Sunlight Foundation
1818 N Street NW, Suite 410
Washington, DC 20036
P: 202/742-1520 ext 236
After briefly exploring this tool, I think it will be highly useful. And it's a great example of the type of creative uses of government information that is endangered if the government decides to go to a tiered model of information access where fully usable data is only available to those who can pay and agree not to release non-drm'd version of info to the public and free access is restricted to some sort of page at a time display.
Since the Future Digital System was designed to be "policy neutral, the reuse friendly policies of today could be converted into the crippled drm'd policy of tomorrow with a few buttons.
Don't let that happen. Work for the locally built, Internet accessible depository system of the future. Study our digital library technologies page, check out LOCKSS or just start tagging documents of value.