[UPDATE, 7 June 2012]: Schuman: Major Transparency Milestone in Bulk Access Statement
[UPDATE, 5 June 2012, 18:00 Eastern: Daniel Schuman reports: Issa Offers #FreeTHOMAS Amendment to Leg Approps Bill.]
The U.S. House Committee on Appropriations has voted to approve a committee print directing an indefinite delay on a decision whether to provide U.S. federal legislative data in bulk XML to the public, according to Daniel Schuman’s new post entitled Bulk Access Developments after the H. Approps Hearing, on the Sunlight Foundation Blog.
According to the approved committee print, the decision will be delayed indefinitely while a new task force meets to consider the committee’s concerns. Those concerns mostly involve what are described as the “unresolved” “challenge of authenticating downloads of bulk data legislative data files in XML,” and costs and other issues that purportedly may arise from the alteration of legislative data by downstream users.
Here is the language that, according to Mr. Schuman, has been approved by the committee:
During the hearings this year, the Committee heard testimony on the dissemination of congressional information products in Extensible Markup Language (XML) format. XML permits data to be reused and repurposed not only for print output but for conversion into ebooks, mobile web applications, and other forms of content delivery including data mashups and other analytical tools. The Committee has heard requests for the increased dissemination of congressional information via bulk data download from non-governmental groups supporting openness and transparency in the legislative process. While sharing these goals, the Committee is also concerned that Congress maintains the ability to ensure that its legislative data files remain intact and a trusted source once they are removed from the Government’s domain to private sites.
The GPO currently ensures the authenticity of the congressional information it disseminates to the public through its Federal Digital System and the Library Congress’s THOMAS system by the use of digital signature technology applied to the Portable Document Format (PDF) version of the document, which matches the printed document. The use of this technology attests that the digital version of the document has not been altered since it was authenticated and disseminated by GPO. At this time, only PDF files can be digitally signed in native format for authentication purposes. There currently is no comparable technology for the application and verification of digital signatures on XML documents. While the GPO currently provides bulk data access to information products of the Office of the Federal Register, the limitations on the authenticity and integrity of those data files are clearly spelled out in the user guide that accompanies those files on GPO’s Federal Digital System.
The GPO and Congress are moving toward the use of XML as the data standard for legislative information. The House and Senate are creating bills in XML format and are moving toward creating other congressional documents in XML for input to the GPO. At this point, however, the challenge of authenticating downloads of bulk data legislative data files in XML remains unresolved, and there continues to be a range of associated questions and issues: Which Legislative Branch agency would be the provider of bulk data downloads of legislative information in XML, and how would this service be authorized. How would ‘‘House’’ information be differentiated from ‘‘Senate’’ information for the purposes of bulk data downloads in XML? What would be the impact of bulk downloads of legislative data in XML on the timeliness and authoritativeness of congressional information? What would be the estimated timeline for the development of a system of authentication for bulk data downloads of legislative information in XML? What are the projected budgetary impacts of system development and implementation, including potential costs for support that may be required by third party users of legislative bulk data sets in XML, as well as any indirect costs, such as potential requirements for Congress to confirm or invalidate third party analyses of legislative data based on bulk downloads in XML? Are there other data models or alternative[sic] that can enhance congressional openness and transparency without relying on bulk data downloads in XML?
Accordingly, and before any bulk data downloads of legislative information are authorized, the Committee directs the establishment of a task force composed of staff representatives of the Library of Congress, the Congressional Research Service, the Clerk of the House, the Government Printing Office, and such other congressional offices as may be necessary, to examine these and any additional issues it considers relevant and to report back to the Committee on Appropriations of the House and Senate.
As Daniel Schuman and Eric Mill have noted (here and here), the committee print language respecting the task force is problematic from the perspective of those who favor increased government transparency, increased participation of the public in government policy, or efficiency in government operations, because, according to the language of the committee print, the task force:
- will have no members from outside of the government
- has no deadline to complete its work
- is not required to receive input from the public
- is not required to make its report public
- is not required to take into consideration the 2008 Library of Congress memorandum that already addressed this issue in detail.
For commentary about this new House policy, click here.