PPF Blog

Contact-Congress Goes Gangbusters; Now, Let’s Build More Tools For It

Huge progress to note today in the Contact-Congress project.

It’s incredible to see over 72 people in the #opencongress IRC room right now! Amazing momentum & volunteers coming together from EFF’s call-to-action last night for United States org’s Contact-Congress push. Big shouts to Rainey of EFF, Sina & Taskforce.is, Dan Drinkard of Sunlight Labs, everyone with the /unitedstates.io organization, Jason of Action Network and many dozens of volunteers doing this awesome work.

PPF announces Contact-Congress features on OC, summer 2011

PPF announces Contact-Congress features on OC, summer 2011

Our non-profit, the Participatory Politics Foundation, began the open-source Contact-Congress project in 2010, then launched it publicly in  2011 with our OpenCongress.org version 3. Read my launch blog post from July 27, 2011  (which Donny published for us) – “OCv3: now, the easiest way to organize and contact Congress“. For free & open-source submission of electronic messages through notoriously-closed-off Congressional websites. Another post of mine from July 30th, 2011, “Email your members of Congress about the debt ceiling bills“: “Previously, constituents had to visit at least three different websites to send emails to their two U.S. senators & U.S. representative. Various political blog communities & issue-based groups have custom software solutions for their grassroots members to write-their-reps, but the public at large didn’t have a one-stop tool for something as basic as sending an email to all three of their federal legislators.” 

PPF’s OpenCongress tech lead, Andy Ross, wrote the original Formaggedon code to automate submissions to Congressional webforms, building on previous work in open-source community in this area. Our tireless & generous intern Dan Schneiderman worked through the night to help hook up the first versions for close to 535 members of Congress. We had aggregated and displayed open data about bills on OC since 2007, and built user-friendly participation tools for commenting and personal voting on legislation – but it was always our goal for our site visitors to be able to write their members of Congress directly from OpenCongress pages, with publicly-shareable communications. Indeed, it’s our ultimate goal to make open structured public feedback possible from any open site on the web – more on that vision below.

PPF's message-builder interface, still in use on OpenCongress

PPF’s message-builder interface, still in use on OpenCongress

Other projects had submitted messages to Congressional webforms before – PPF’s Formaggedon code uniquely brought back the “captchas” to the human user on the OpenCongress webpage. We created a unique message builder interface to offer handy access to all the helpful information we aggregated about bills – public comments, issue groups supporting & opposing, and crucially, campaign contribution data. We highlighted interesting letters from constituents on our blog – after all, any issue-based organization or community group has some issues that are affected by federal legislation. Hot bills in Congress will always drive news. PPF delivered over 250,000 electronic messages to Congress since 2011 and posted 140,000 official replies on OC, all with less than one full-time programmer.

PPF's message-builder interface, still in use on OpenCongress

PPF’s message-builder interface, still in use on OpenCongress

The public-benefit potential was, and is, huge: open-source code to submit electronic messages to Congress means that letters aren’t silo’ed and abandoned to the recycling bin anymore, but can live on the open Web, citable & shareable. Previously, if you wrote your U.S. rep’s office on her webform, your message would likely only be seen by the intern or staffer handling the proprietary CMS used for constituent relations on the Hill- maybe a few other staffers. In addition to delivering public messages about bills & issues to Congress, free of charge, Formaggedon publicly displayed any responses  from the Congressional office and allowed public comments – continuing the conversation, for transparency and accountability. Just as crucially, it expands the open-data playing field on public input on legislation, down to the level of user comments on individual sections of bill text (a starter version of “GitLaw” that we supported). We can generate more human open-data on top of open-government-data such as Contact-Congress.

PPF's open letters to Congress from issue-based  groups, generating open data made possible by open data.

PPF’s open letters to Congress from issue-based groups, generating open data made possible by open data.

The United States organization deserves a huge amount of credit for mobilizing volunteers and making the maintenance process of Contact-Congress more scalable & easier. Their decentralized approach is terrifically innovative & encouraging – really a great community. PPF agreed to have Sunlight acquire OpenCongress last year and keep it up as an open public resource, including our Contact-Congress user interface.

Three takeaways from this success, for the open-government tech landscape:

First, it’s not just Congressional offices that need tools like Contact-Congress software and message-builder interfaces for composing & sharing effective communications – every level of government could benefit from these web tools. Please support our open-source, non-profit OpenGovernment.org website to bring public feedback to the legislative process at federal, as well as state & local levels of government. We’re looking for charitable funders to bring the OpenCongress model of user-friendly engagement with elected officials more-local. See also our current flagship project, AskThem, for questions-and-answers with public figures – over 142,000 elected officials nationwide.  Get in touch to see where we’re headed with AskThem & OpenGovernment for data aggregation and public comment around state & local legislation. We’ll be pleased to make use of Contact-Congress on AskThem in the near future, for delivery of popular public questions to Congressional offices.

Second, now that Contact-Congress is taking off, it will be possible to develop more open data conventions (if not fully standards) for constituent communications to Congress. Imagine reading a news article about a bill affecting net neutrality – your range of reactions to it might be vaguely positive, curious, specific in your question, interested in a trusted authority’s opinion, wanting to raise it to the level of a pressing priority. We can develop fields to effectively aggregate and convey these individual human reactions to people in our representatives’ offices in D.C. and at every level of government. Someday, I hope that Hill staffers have rich dashboards of constituent opinion to consult in their office’s resource allocations and help shape priorities (as opposed to fundraising time from wealthy donors & PACs) – like Google Analytics or Chartbeat for public opinion. Contact me to find out more about how we can spread these open data conventions to sites across the open web and deliver them to Congressional offices in publicly-transparent ways. With a small amount of non-profit funding, we can make it possible to convey your opinions to your U.S. senators and representatives’ offices directly from any webpage, such as a news article, and see what other constituents in your district are thinking about the bill or issue or vote.

Third, the public will need more tools & interfaces to submit their ideas and feelings in such open data conventions.  PPF has the proven experience and activist design-sense to develop these tools – our sibling non-profit projects include the Amara subtitling platform and Fight For the Future, to name just two. When you’re on an issue-based organization’s site, or a news site or political blog or community forum, site users will need a variety of open-source tools for crafting their messages to their elected officials’ offices, and funneling them into open data conventions for delivery & response from their representatives at various levels of government, all towards a more transparent & repsonsive government. Please get in touch to see more of our ideas towards this vision, achieving the potential of the open web and user-friendly tools for a healthier & more participatory democracy.

We have dozens more ideas for open-source projects & open-data collaborations that can be just as impactful as Contact-Congress and our user-friendly & data-rich interface design on OC – please be in touch to support our work, email david at ppolitics.org for our non-profit funding prospectus and ideas list. With a bit more resources back in 2011-2012, we could have had Contact-Congress this robustly developed & spread across the web to groups like EFF and others – three more years of open data about public letters on legislation, new analyses and new surfacing of money-in-politics research – going back to the first year of Code For America, doing even more around the SOPA/PIPA net censorship movement of Jan. 2012, and thousands of major bills. Our limiting factor is funding for open-source programming time to coordinate more community efforts such as Contact-Congress, or our previous RaceTracker wiki to track every declared candidate in every U.S. Congressional district. We’re easy to reach & eager to chat! Help support our public-benefit ideas.

Email me anytime, david at ppolitics.org, questions and comments welcome. Congrats again to awesome UnitedStates organization, pushing things forward & open-source, public-domain to the core, incredible to see.

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3 Responses to Contact-Congress Goes Gangbusters; Now, Let’s Build More Tools For It

  1. Matt says:

    First of all I’m a big fan of Askthem.io. Sites like this are playing a huge role in providing more transparency to government, in a time when we need it more than ever. So, a sincerely thank you.

    My question is if you are planning any features in Askthem.io to allow community members to revise a question that is already asked. My reasoning is that I have seen questions I really wanted to be asked however, through phrasing, implied things that I personally don’t agree with. Other times good questions come across as downright rude. I think it would help more questions get accepted to allow the community to submit revisions to questions that seem emotionally charged, but well intentioned.

    Anyway that’s my two cents. Thanks again for making this!


  2. Bruce Meeks says:

    How can we tailor this for access to just askthem for our city ?

    So they can just see and participate as a group ?

    And NOT violate open meeting act laws in Illinois ?

  3. David Moore says:

    Matt, will email you – yes that’s planned, thanks for asking. We’ll of course make it clear when a question is slightly tweaked, so that everyone involved can see the reasons for the edit, and no one is answering a question that was changed significantly in its direction. We’ll have more editing features as soon as we can.

    Bruce, will email you too, it’s easy for any elected official to sign-up to respond to Q’s on AskThem, here’s how: http://goo.gl/K2DYcs. On open meeting acts, every jurisdiction is slightly different, and we can work with you! Will write.

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