Monday, August 1, 2011

Hackathon Anyone? California Opens Legislative Database

So it's not quite Wikileaks, and it's actually officially sanctioned by California's Legislative Counsel. But an email I recently received on Sunlight Foundation's OpenStates listserv could be the first step to fully opening up California's legislation to the public. In the world of legislative transparency, this counts as exciting stuff.

I've written before about my efforts to wrangle text files of California's codes into structured data that is easier to navigate than the official site (leginfo.ca.gov). I've posted the new version of California's codes on calaw.tabulaw.com, and made the computer code available on github. Now, California's Legislative counsel has made the raw data, in XML format, available for FTP download here. What is remarkable, is that the ftp data comes with all of the SQL scripts and a guide to set up your own database of California's laws and bills, *updated each day*.

Now, I've been to the ftp site before, and perhaps this information was all there (though I don't recall seeing it). [UPDATE: The files were posted in an obscure corner of the site about a year ago as the result of a lawsuit by maplight.org] But in any case, this makes it possible to create a model site for California that goes beyond what has been possible for other state legislation to date. Much of the work that has made this possible was done by Grant Vergottini, who runs legisweb.com, and whose team developed the authoring system that California's legislature uses to write bills.

The CA site could:
1. Show a "point-in-time" version of California's law.
2. Show a redlined version of California's Codes, for any bill that would amend them.
3. Immediately update California's Codes when a new bill is passed.
4. Feature modern search and navigational tools to smoothly get from any place in the codes to any other.

A group is now forming to hack on this site and make it a reality, with a Calaw hackathon in the near future. If you're interested, contact me directly (aih at tabulaw dot com) or leave a comment.