PPF will create the first-ever centralized, query-able and shareable repository of congressional scorecards created by issue groups, on OpenCongress.org. Scorecards are invaluable sources of information because they contain descriptions and positions on individual votes written by subject matter experts from established positions (knowing what both the Christian Coalition and the ACLU have to say about a vote tells one a lot, even if one doesn't agree with either). While these issue groups spend a great deal of time and money creating these scorecards, they are generally locked up in PDFs or other difficult-to-share formats in difficult-to-find locations, leaving this wealth of information inaccessible to the public and forcing bloggers, reporters, researchers and citizens to duplicate their research and reinvent the wheel every time they want to know what a particular vote was about. PPF's project will enable everyone to view, download and share this information and access it either by politician or vote, providing a constellation of views within which everyone can triangulate their own personal truth. And we will do this with cooperative, community labor.
PPF will produce a new adjunct to our OpenCongress.org site that will contain the information from congressional scorecards, including issue groups' vote descriptions, vote positions and yearly lawmaker scores. Within the site, visitors will be able to access the information in several ways and places: the lawmaker profiles will contain the overall scores from different groups over several years, the bill pages will contain descriptions and positions from the scorecards, and the scorecards themselves will be accessible through profiles of the issue groups.
This will all be cross-linked so that, for example, you can go to Senator Jane Schmoe's profile, click on her "25" rating from CNET's Technology Voter Guide scorecard, see which particular votes she disagreed with CNET on and then click on that vote to see a description of it from CNET and every other organization that rated the vote. (Obviously PPF will not be taking any positions or privileging any particular group's scorecard.)
All information will be Creative Commons-licensed (issue groups are happy to share the information, they just seem to have not figured out how to do it effectively), downloadable and shareable. While some other sites list the overall scores from some issue groups, no one has attempted to capture the individual vote descriptions systematically or treat the scores and descriptions as cross-referenceable, shareable data.
This project will be focused to first serve the following communities: political bloggers & journalists, NGOs (with and without Congressional scorecards), and grassroots government watchdogs. The wider audience of internet users searching for basic or detailed political information about what's happening in Congress will also be served by the Library.
Political bloggers will have the benefit of a go-to, one-stop online resource for how issue-based organizations are rating every single Member of Congress. In their posts commenting on Congressional news, bloggers will be able to summarize a Member's standing with, say, environmental organizations, and what's more, they will be able to link to specific votes and developments that inform the Member's score. In addition, this project will be an invaluable research & reporting resource for journalists, who currently do not have access to an open, authoritative, and cited collection of scorecards for elected officials.
NGOs will be able to take advantage of the Cong. Scorecard Library regardless of whether or not they already issue scorecards. If they do, they will be able to more comprehensively and more easily compare their individual ratings on votes and overall scores with their peer groups and allies - e.g., environmental group staff & members will be able to do vote-by-vote comparisons for any & all senators and representatives. For NGOs that don't issue scorecards, the library's granularity and accessiblity will make the overall scorecard results more transparent, accountable, and meaningful in context -- being able to see the specific criteria for varying scores will significantly contribute to public knowledge about Congress.
The same goes for grassroots government watchdogs, the type of internet user who communicates political information in peer-to-peer fashion using social networking tools or email lists. For example, parent-teacher associations will be able to cite ratings from national education groups in their correspondence with elected officials from their district. Specific votes by Members will be made more tangible in the context of a broader rating from a trusted or respected issue-based organization.br />
OpenCongress is the most-visited government transparency website in the U.S. and likely the world. The site uniquely combines official government data alongside social wisdom from the open Web in a user-friendly interface to make the U.S. Congress more transparent and accessible. In addition to aggregating news & blog coverage of every bills and Member of Congress, the site employs peer-to-peer social networking features and public participation tools to "filter up" the most useful information about what's really happening on Capitol Hill.
The site receives close to one million visits and more than 2.5 million pageviews per month, along with millions of pings for information monthly via our open API, RSS feeds, free widgets, and semantic MediaWiki access. More than 150,000 people have registered free "My OpenCongress" accounts to track and share their political interests in Congress. OC is positioned via its advanced SEO and existing active user community to serve a wide audience of internet users, both politically-engaged social-networking influencers and political neophytes searching the web for basic information & educational resources.
The OpenCongress Wiki already hosts successful crowd-sourced projects on government information, such as the following ::
A large part of the labor for the project will be provided by volunteer participants, so PPF will evaluate the success by what they are able to accomplish; mainly, how many scorecards they are able to upload. More broadly, we will measure the page-views and, more importantly, the number of links, downloads, syndications and mash-ups we receive as others share the information we have gathered.
Our team's past experience with similar crowd-sourced projects leads us to expect a few dozen very active participants at the short end of the tail, with a larger number of more casual participants in the long tail. We will recruit from our active base of viewers and volunteers on the OpenCongress site as well as the larger network of online political and civic activists, of which we are an active member. Our past projects have received a great deal of recognition in that sphere and we expect the same for this one.
PPF is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization with a mission to build public knowledge about politics and government as they affect our daily lives. Our site code is open-source and our site content is c-c licensed, with built-in tools to facilitate peer-to-peer communication about the political issues you're following in Congress. Our free API and semantic MediaWiki allow other websites to easily cite and syndicate our official government data and specially-created user-generated information around bills and political issues. We have a deep-seated and robust appreciation of "the commons" -- after all, we make use of free public resources like Wikipedia and Firefox every day -- and it is core to our organizational mission. This project on the publicly-editable OC Wiki will go directly into the commons and make a significant unique contribution.
Our sibling non-profit organization, the Participatory Culture Foundation, is another longtime Creative Commons ally. Through software and advocacy, the Participatory Culture Foundation works to build a fairer, more open, and more democratic media space. Miro, PCF's free and open-source desktop video player, is built on open standards and designed to encourage decentralization of video hosting. Also, PCF is a founder of the Open Video Alliance, a coalition of organizations, companies, and individuals that are working to create open tools, workflows, licensing systems for online video. OVA members also include Mozilla, Kaltura, and the Yale Information Society Project, along with volunteers and the open-source community.
PPF will build this project within the existing environment already created on OpenCongress, in particular using the cutting-edge Semantic MediaWiki system, which grafts forms and data-capability onto the open-participation, open-source MediaWiki platform (the same software that runs Wikipedia). PPF has already used this to build a preliminary, non-scalable version of a scorecard library that requires a great deal of highly specialized, highly technical labor to made additions. CC funding will allow us to contract for programming time from our Semantic MediaWiki developer, Yaron Koren (the primary author of many common & leading MediaWiki extensions), to create a specialized form system where people with little technical expertise can easily upload scorecards (without needing to know or touch MediaWiki code itself). Our experienced OpenCongress wiki editor, Conor Kenny, will then guide the research effort with our interns and volunteer participants. We possess all the technical expertise necessary, we just need funding for the actual labor & programming tiem.
In our past efforts to collect and publish scorecards, we have been stymied by the inaccessible formats used by issue groups to publish their scorecards as well as their general ignorance in the importance of shareable and machine-readable formats. This has forced us to spend a lot of labor re-creating the scorecards (by typing them into complicated wiki-markup pages) and the often the massive tables showing where individual lawmakers stood on each vote. With the CC-funded developer time, we can create easy-to-use forms allowing interns, volunteers or even the organizations themselves to paste in descriptions of individual votes and we can build database queries to build the vote tables. This will allow us to leverage our existing networks, reputation and volunteer base to access a much greater pool of labor than we can now effectively utilize.
PPF, as a non-profit organization, follows a sustainability plan that strives to balance revenue streams from a variety of sources: grassroots online donors, charitable foundations, individual philanthropists, and allied partner organizations. One model for our future plans is the Mozilla Foundation, makers of the Firefox web browser and associated community products. Mozilla spreads small-donor contributions & volunteer programming time with support from foundations and technology companies. PPF, of course on a much smaller scale at the moment, similarly pursues online fundraising campaigns with targeted foundation grant proposals and appeals to dedicated philanthropists to support our public-knowledge mission.
The Congressional Scorecard Library, specifically, will be almost entirely self-sustaining, following this outlay for wiki development, technical support (e.g. web server systems maintenance, database administration, etc.). Of course, it can be enhanced with more data and features pending future funding, but once the technical backbone is in place, the web pages and data available on the OC Wiki will continue to be available as long as OpenCongress is up on the Web (which is to say, in perpetuity). For minor expenses after this grant associated with ongoing server capacity for the Library itself, appeals will be made first to the contributing community of volunteers for small-donor support. Following that, appeals will be made to the most-active consumers of the Library's information -- political blogging communities, issue-based organizations, academic researchers, and grassroots OC users (tens of thousands per day).
CC funding will enable PPF to build the system of uploading and sharing the scorecards and to build a substantial, initial library of scorecards. After the funding period, this system will continue to be in place for any member of the public to upload future scorecards or to expand the population of groups included. Because of the share-ability of the information, anyone online will instantly have access to any new information. Further, it is our hope that issue groups will see the new prominence of scorecards to encourage more groups to issue scorecards (some, like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, take positions on votes but do not issue scorecards) and to perhaps encourage real-time ratings of votes if groups decide to build their scorecards over the course of a year instead of issuing it at year's-end. This would greatly increase the amount of information available to citizens about what is happening in Congress as it happens instead of retroactively.
The CC funding will obviously allow us to successfully execute this project as described above. Beyond that, CC could provide great help to PPF in publicizing the project at the outset in order to attract the volunteer participants we need to succeed. Finally, once the initial library set is published, CC can provide access to its network of programmers, bloggers, visualization artists and other mash-upers, researchers and writers who can do things we couldn't begin to think of with the information in the Library. For example, we'd love to see visualizations representing how "green-friendly" or "gun-friendly" members of Congress are and the ways people think of to convey that information.
All the information in the project will be available in machine-readable formats via API and other download channels in order to ensure that the creativity of the human race is unleashed on everything we collect. This is in keeping with the tradition of PPF since its founding to make all our information both free as in beer and free as in speech. All of which is to say, riffing off the "cognitive surplus" theories pioneered by Clay Shirky of NYU, we're working to harness the "cognitive efficiencies" of the Creative Commons community.
PPF engages in daily outreach to the open-source and free-culture communities via the following methods ::
- Blogging and RSS feeds on the open Web - read by tens of thousands of visitors per day
- PPF & PCF email list-servs (consisting of hundreds of thousands of members apiece), online user forums where we openly respond to our communities, and several transparency-related Google Groups
- Social networking services (e.g., Facebook and Twitter, though truly free & open-source services preferred)
- GitHub code repositories
- In-kind publicity from allied organizations, public wikis, online tech news sites, political blogs, and others.