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Making Legislative Information Accessible, Discoverable and Usable

The following is a guest post by Noriko Ohtaki, who was a research fellow at the Law Library of Congress.  She previously blogged about Searching for Current Japanese Laws and Regulations.

G8 leaders signed the Open Data Charter on June 18, 2013.  Open Data is intended to make information resources accessible, discoverable, and usable electronically to the public, increase transparency about government activities, and empower people and businesses to fuel better outcomes in public services.

In an Open Data context, governments are required to publish their datasets in open and machine-readable formats which allows governments to increase their operational efficiencies by effective data management at each stage of its life cycle— creation, dissemination, access, use, preservation, and evaluation.  With the interoperability and openness, it also allows datasets to be re-used in innovative ways to create useful tools and products: for example, an application that alerts users to the latest subway conditions by adding real-time updates from commuters to the official transit data.

Before the Open Data Charter, the federal government had already made significant progress in improving its openness and efficiency with legislative information which is identified as high value data in the “Government Accountability and Democracy” section of the charter.  In 1993, Congress passed the GPO Electronic Information Access Enhancement Act (Public Law 103-40), which directed the Government Printing Office (GPO) to ensure online access to the Congressional Record, Federal Register, and other federal documents, and led to the launch of “GPO Access” in 1994.  THOMAS.gov was launched by the Library of Congress in 1995, under the direction of the 104th Congress to make federal legislative information freely available to the public. “House.gov” went online during the 104th Congress as well.

The continuous effort to provide better service has promoted accessibility and usability of legislative information. THOMAS.gov expanded the scope of its offering so that a wide range of information such as Bills, Resolutions, Activity in Congress, Congressional Record Schedules, Calendars, Committee Information, Presidential Nominations, and Treaties are available.  Congress.gov was launched in 2012 to replace THOMAS.gov with a system that includes platform mobility, comprehensive information retrieval, and user-friendly presentation. Two years earlier, in 2010, GPO Access was replaced by “FDsys” (Federal Digital System) which provides access to documents from three branches of the federal government online.

Since 1996 the Secretary of the Senate and the Clerk of the House have worked together with the Library of Congress, GPO, Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and Government Accountability Office (GAO) to establish common data standards for the exchange of legislative documents.  After the adoption of the eXtensible Markup Language (XML)  as a primary standard in 2000, they have created common Document Type Definitions (DTD) for Bills, Roll Call Votes, Committee Report, and more through the Legislative Branch XML Working Group.

XML is an open and world wide data standard designed to transport and store data. It is a simple, very flexible and machine-readable text format; it ensures interoperability between systems; and numerous tools and applications have been developed for it and are widely available. A DTD defines the legal building blocks of an XML document. It defines the document structure with a list of legal elements and attributes.  Adopting XML with a common DTD enables organizations to exchange, use and reuse each other’s data more efficiently.

In a legislative process generally, many different offices produce and use legislative data. One office’s data is often closely related to another office’s data, and they all need to use and reuse each other’s data. The XML standard would help them streamline their job.  In addition, storing data in XML allows machines to recognize and process the data, because of the description to identify the nature of each piece of information in XML. It is quite different from simply labeling the information in PDF. The more the data becomes machine processable, the more routine tasks could be automated by well-designed software programs.

The House and the Senate started the project to draft bills in XML in 2001.  The first bills in XML based on the common DTD were published online in 2004 through Thomas.gov.  As an ongoing project, the Office of Law Revision Council (OLRC) released the United States Code in XML in July 2013.  OLRC also provides the United States Legislative Markup (USLM) schema and its user guide for enabling the public to reuse data.  We can find examples of reusing legislative information in helping organize lists of citations in bills, in tracking references to United States Code sections and providing headings and information from the Code sections, and more.  USLM schema is also designed to be consistent with the international effort called Akoma Ntoso to the extent practicable.

Akoma Ntoso (“linked hearts” in Akan language of West Africa) was first launched in 2005 as a part of the project “Strengthening Parliaments’ Information System In Africa” promoted by the United Nations Department for Economics and Social Affairs (UNDESA).  It is a set of simple, technology-neutral XML descriptions of parliamentary, legislative and judiciary documents to support the creation of high-value parliamentary and legislative information services that greatly improve efficiency and accountability in the parliamentary institutions.

Akoma Ntoso contains both structural and semantic components. Structural markup refers to the categorizing of different parts of a text based on their role in organizing the document (e.g., sections and clauses, preambles and attachments, headings and bodies, etc.), and semantic markup refers to the categorizing of different parts of a text based on their meaning with regard to the topic of the document (e.g., provisions, definitions, reference, names, dates, places, etc.). It enables an exchange and comparison of the legislative data even in different languages.

Akoma Ntoso has been adopted not only by African countries but also the European Parliament (bills and amendments at AT4AM for All), Italian Senate (bill publication in open data ), Brazilian Senate (act, bill, consolidation, point-in-time), Hong Kong City State (XML standard for document management).  The Library of Congress announced two data challenges in 2013, Markup of US Legislation in Akoma Ntoso and Legislative XML Data Mapping, to help advance the development of international exchange standards for legislative data and identify potential gaps in the Akoma Ntoso schema with respect to US and UK legislation. In addition, there is the LIME Editor, an open source, web-based editor, developed by the University of Bologna to allow for the quick conversion of non-structured legal documents into XML, including Akoma Ntoso XML.  In 2013, Akoma Ntoso Version 3.0 was released and approved by OASIS LegalDocML Technical Committee as an OASIS Standard for parliamentary, legislative and judiciary documents.

In many countries, legislative documents are one of the most traditional documents and the legislative process remains constant for long time. Even so, processes and procedures that support the legislative cycle can evolve to take advantage of new technology. Change would be hard and needs time, but it is still worth promoting.

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