By Pam Greenberg
The Sunlight Foundation recently announced the launch of the Open States website, which has legislative information for all 50 states, D.C. and Puerto Rico. The site was created by staff at Sunlight, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, with the help of volunteers.
We wrote in 2011 about an earlier version of the site, which had information from five states. The new site has come a long way in two years, and provides citizens with easy to find information in a standard format for all states.
From the home page, enter an address or browse by state. Selecting a state shows an interactive map of legislative districts—just click and drill down to find your district and who represents you. Or enter an address to bring up names and photos of legislators for that district. Once you’ve selected a legislator, the site shows contact information, committee membership, and bills sponsored. You can click to “Follow” a legislator or a bill, or to share information to Twitter or Facebook. The full text of bills are searchable, and searches can be narrowed with filters like status, chamber, sponsor or, in some states, by topic. There’s also a free Open States app for iPhone or iPad.
Legislative information on the site is automatically collected nightly by scraping legislative websites, so the information available can vary depending on the information provided by the state. Legislators’ votes on bills or events like committee hearings are available in some states. Also, the legislative data is combined with information from other sources. For example, a legislator’s page might include links to news articles and blogs (for example, from a caucus or legislative blog site or from a local political blog). Legislators’ campaign contributions also are shown for most states.
Open States also makes the data they collect available for bulk download formats or via an API (Application Program Interface) so that others can combine or use the data in new ways, like in this visualization from MinnPost.com.
Legislative websites in many states also are evolving and responding to changes in technology and citizen expectations. Some legislatures already directly provide their data in bulk downloads or via an API. Many already have bill tracking services and address look-ups or maps that allow citizens to find out who represents them. They also are creating apps and online features that make it easier for citizens to sign up to testify in committee, to submit testimony, and state their opinions about bills. So visit the Open States site, but remember to check in with your state’s official legislative website, too.