(This is written in the style of a letter to the Senate… because hopefully it will turn into just that. Comments on its persuasiveness are welcome.)
Summary: The Senate’s current position on publishing voting records online is analogous to a reference library that has no copy machine. I explain below why the Senate website should publish its roll call vote records in “XML format”, to facilitate educating the public and strengthening transparency, and why any reluctance there may be should be reevaluated in light of the experience from the House’s use of XML for roll call votes and the presence today of unauthoritative XML for Senate votes. Current Senate website policy should be revised to encourage the use of this “structured data format”.
Though everyone believes an electorate must be informed to make wise decisions at the polls, the complexities of what happens in the Congress are indeed difficult to distill and share with the public. Roll call voting records are of crucial importance to the public for obvious reasons, but at the same time fail to capture the nuances of each situation that may have played a central role in a Senator’s decision making. How voting records, which are easy to convey but oversimplify the big picture, should be responsibly shared with the public is a question for debate. I suggest below that the Senate website publish its roll call vote records in “XML format” (in addition to what is currently available) to help keep the public informed, and that any fears about how the information in XML may be used are not strong enough reasons to avoid this technology.
The Senate’s current position on publishing voting records online is analogous to a reference library that has no copy machine. In a reference library without a copy machine, the information in the stacks is certainly made available, but library members can’t easily share the information with others. They can instruct others how to find the information in the library (i.e. a link), and they can copy the information by hand and make copies at Kinkos, but library members are unable to use the latest technology to help them share the information outside the library. In such a world, the library members’ response is likely to be to haul in their own copy machines into the library. This is exactly what has happened with Senate voting records.
Leaving the metaphor, long ago the Senate took the important step of publishing voting records on its website. Though the votes webpages themselves cannot capture all of the nuances of each vote, these webpages complement what exists elsewhere on the web. For instance, the websites of newspapers, which do try to explain the back-story of legislative issues to present a larger picture, often link to the Senate’s roll call webpages as, in a sense, an extension of their own reporting, that is, so they can provide not just the big picture but also the crucial details. The roll call webpages thus have an important role in educating the electorate and promoting transparency.
The metaphorical copy machine represents what is called structured data, for example “XML.” XML allows computers to more easily process information, and for voting records would help that information be disseminated more widely and in novel ways to the public. While structured data is a part of today’s so-called “Web 2.0″, the current policy understood to be coming from Senate Administration is that the Senate website is not to publish structured data for roll call votes, with the reason understood to be that Senators prefer to have their votes be published not as isolated factoids, where they could be misrepresented, but rather only as part of a larger picture.
This policy warrants review on two accounts. On the one hand, even such isolated facts have a crucial role of complementing the larger picture presented elsewhere, as does the existing Senate webpages for votes as explained above. But further, for several years the House has published its voting records in XML. The New York Times, for instance, makes use of these files to enhance their own coverage of legislation by including visual representations of votes along with their articles — the big picture and the crucial details. XML made the voting information more easily transformed into visual form, a form that has educational value to the public, and so using XML is in this respect in the public interest. The Senate does not publish XML, and while as with the metaphorical reference library this does not prevent wholesale access to the information, it is holding back on technology that facilitates educating others. The Senate should adopt a similar policy as the House to encourage the dissemination of voting information, knowing from the experience of the House that it will be used often to complement reporting of the nuances and the big picture.
Because it does not publish votes in XML, the public has hauled in its own copy machine — and the effect is that Senate vote XML files are available to the public, Senate rules notwithstanding. The independent website GovTrack.us publishes its own XML files for Senate votes, and these are used by several other websites to enhance the public’s understanding of the Congress. Any fears Senators might have had for a future with XML can thus be evaluated today. However, this unauthoritative source for voting information is not an optimal solution, on account of the fact that on rare occasions it disseminates incorrect information to some hundreds of thousands of monthly visitors of the websites using these XML files. An authoritative source of roll call vote XML files from the Senate directly would rectify this problem.
As there is virtually no cost to publishing XML files for roll call votes, and in light of the experience that can be gathered from the House’s use of XML and the presence today of (unauthoritative) XML for Senate votes, the current policy regarding the use of structured data on the Senate website should be reevaluated. The use of structured data should be encouraged for all public information on the Senate website, especially starting with roll call votes, and would signal a renewed commitment to using technology to promote transparency.