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Transparency groups call for THOMAS bulk downloads

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Transparency watchdogs, goo-goo groups and a few others say it's time the congressional legislation website known as THOMAS offer bulk downloads of its database so that others might do a better job of presenting legislative information.

Thirty such organizations--including the Sunlight Foundation, OpenTheGovernment.org and the Association of Research Libraries--banded together April 10 in letters sent to congressional appropriations and rulemakers pleading for bulk download access.

The THOMAS website, which tracks the status of current and past bills, co-sponsors, summaries, as well as public laws, roll call votes and other aspects of the legislative process, was cutting edge when first launched. But "while times have changed, and technologies have changed, THOMAS has not kept up," the organizations say.

In a blog post highlighting the letter, Sunlight Foundation Policy Counsel Daniel Schuman says the organizations estimate that for every person who goes directly to THOMAS, at least two go to a third-party congressional action tracker, such as opencongress.org or govtrack.us.

Such websites cobble together their information by stripping it from THOMAS, an "imperfect, expensive, and time consuming" process, the letters say.

Much better would be to simply download the back-end data, they say, especially since the Government Printing Office, the executive branch, and the House of Representatives already make available raw datasets on the web. A fully downloadable THOMAS dataset would also make it easier for third parties to build new tools to analyze and present legislative information, they add.

In a 2009 statement (.pdf) accompanying the legislative branch appropriation act, Congress directed the Library of Congress--which runs THOMAS--to prepare a report on the feasibility of a no-charge bulk download. The letters conclude by urging Congress to simply implement bulk access to THOMAS in language in the legislative branch appropriations bill for the coming fiscal year, which starts on Oct. 1.

For more:
- go to the Sunlight Foundation's blog post

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