Can the People’s House be a platform for the People?
Last December, the U.S. House of Representatives hosted its first ‘hackathon,’ which ended up being a soft of hybrid of unconference and code-a-thon in the House Oversight Committee’s offices. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, introduced the beta version of MADISON, a new online tool to crowd source legislative markup. The vision was that MADISON would work as a real-time markup engine to let the public comment on bills as they move through the legislative process.
“The assumption is that legislation should be open in Congress,” said Issa. “It should be posted, interoperable and commented upon.”
Today, the code for the MADISON project went live on Github, making it possible for legislatures around the world to use the same platform that has hosted discussions around the controversial SOPA bill, ACTA and TPP treaties, and a “Digital Citizen’s Bill of Rights.”
Congressman Issa told Radar this summer that “the reason that we’ve formed a public nonprofit” was to open source MADISON. Now his office has followed through.
“I don’t want to own it or control it or to produce it for any one purpose, but rather, a purpose of open government,” he said. “So if it spawns hundreds of other not-for-profits, that’s great. If people are able to monetize some of the value provided by that service, then I can also live with that.”
Why open source MADISON? It needs to get better. Here’s an except from the ReadMe doc on Github:
The goal of this development project is to deliver software that supports open, accountable, social and collaborative government. Specifications include but are not limited to the following: It needs to allow users – individuals and organizations - to comment on, edit/improve and share discreet chunks of government documents. It needs to power discussion around those chunks, including comments, sharing, and debate. It needs to allow users to draft from scratch and publicly display that user’s prior contributions and discussion. Users should be able to load “drafts” from other users as starting points for their own work. On the backend, the document’s sponsor (e.g. a Congressman, City Councilwoman, or advocacy group) needs to be able to make sense of the contributions, separate the wheat from the chaff, and be able to seamlessly respond to and incorporate user-generated comments and suggestions.
Every new, “living” government document needs to reference the parts of the law/regulations/treaties that it changes, the user needs to be able to view the “living” document within the referenced document (e.g. individual document view vs. US Code view), and the user-generated data needs to be associated with both.
In open sourcing the MADISON code on Github, the open government geeks in the U.S. House have now also kept pace with their compatriots in the White House, which first committed open source code to Github a few weeks ago and then open sourced its mobile apps this month.
“We’re working to hold the executive accountable to taxpayers,” said Seamus Kraft, the digital director of the Oversight Committee, in December. “Opening up what we do here in these two halls of Congress is equally important. MADISON is our first shot at it. We’re going to need a lot of help to make it better.”
Now they can get it, if the world’s open source community decides to pitch in.