What I've been working on when I am not at work.
For the last two weeks, I've been mentally building a newsfeed. A variety of Google searches have not led to me a service that provides the information I want, and although Capitol Advantage gives me this information for my district, they don't cover everything I want, and their site is considerably more commercial.
I want to build a service that allows individuals to monitor, on a daily or weekly basis, all official activity of their elected officials in Washington. I want to make this both a syndicated service of a central web repository--so we blogger-types can access it in aggregators--and available as an e-mail subscription.
I am working with a legislative assistant I know to figure out how to aggregate the content and build the site. Being so NOT the web-programmer-RSS/XML-girl, I figure this will be a huge project for me, but a useful one. There are lots of services out there that cover the "major" votes, but nothing that we could find that covers everything--that lets a regular citizen easily monitor all of the activities of her elected representatives.
Obstacles? There are no obstacles...this will be accepted and loved by elected officials and easy to build! Or...
First, as was mentioned on jenett.radio twice this week, here and here, many Members of Congress seem to want to receive their constituent "e-mail" through a form at their website, rather than via the traditional methods of electronic communication, like an e-mail. My Representative (Jim Moran) does not have an e-mail address on his site, and one of my Senators (George Allen) does not list an e-mail address on the Contact Information page of the Senate website. My other Senator, John Warner, does. (Kudos to him, by the way. And, really, kudos to Rep. Moran's office for the help they provided when I needed my passport renewal expedited to attend a funeral in London this summer. That does not justify their secrecy regarding e-mail, but I wanted to mention it to be fair.) Why is this lack of publicly-available e-mail addresses an obstacle to my project? I imagine that a Member who is not interested in making it easy for constituents to communicate with him or her electronically will be predisposed to avoid facilitating easier monitoring of their own activities by interested constituents.
The second obstacle? Well, gathering the data in an electronic format, and parsing it for subscriptions by Congressional District. I want to include everything. Every floor vote. The schedule and agenda for the Committee hearings for those Committees on which my Representative or Senator sits, and voting records from those hearings. This information is well beyond the "important or significant" bills that can be monitored through other services. I want everything. I'm not looking to provide analysis here, at least not at first. I simply want to be able to monitor what my federal representatives are doing. But dynamically aggregating this data is going to be a big deal.
The third obstacle? Figuring out how to host it. I've considered using Radio, as my experience with aggregators is limited and I am getting to understand how Radio works. Familiarity breeds appreciation, or something like that. Anyway, each Congressional District would be a category, and aggregators could read subscribe to each category feed. But I need to work out those details and figure out how to populate those feeds.
Does this already exist? and, why should it exist?
As I mentioned, I talked to a couple of Legislative Analyst-types here at my firm, and they have confirmed that a service like this does not exist (at least, not to their knowledge). That said, their emphasis is on horizontal activity in Congress, in that they general monitor or lobby related to a particular bill, and have interaction with potentially all Members of the House or Senate. Their interaction with Congressional Members is less as a constituent and more as an advocate. Additionally, soon-to-be lobbyists are not always the most web-savvy of spiders, as the bread-and-butter of their existence has always been on more of the "who you know" level of relationships that are cemented and jack-hammered over staffer happy hours. Constituents, on the other hand, have a potentially more vertical interest--narrower and more defined, at least in terms of which Representative and which Senators are likely to listen to them.
So, no, I do not this that a service like this--one that is not content-based or filtered, but that merely provides a record of activity--exists. I started looking for a service when I realized I was completely hooked on my aggregator in Radio, and though it would be great to be able to get a feed of the activities of my Senators and Representative. As it turns out, I could not get it. I can go to their websites, sure, but that's a minimum of three sites, and my reward is similar to the snail mail I get from Representative Moran twice a year; informative, perhaps, but ultimately a PR tool. I could subscribe to updates from issue groups, but those are understandably narrow in scope. I could monitor the general websites for the House and Senate, but that gives me an overwhelmingly-broad range of information (and I cannot see just the information relating to my representatives).
Additionally, even if this information were easily available from these other sources, it would not show up each day in my aggregator or on my personal newsisfree page.
And I think I *should* be able to do this. I want to be part of an informed electorate. The average Congressional district is home to over 600,000 individuals. 600,000 to 1. This is not "government of the people." There is no realistic possibility that any single person can effectively and accurately "represent" 600,000 diverse individuals. I acknowledge that I am a small cog in the world that is my Representative--and because I live in a relatively populous state, I have even less of an effect on the behavior of my Senators. In order to be heard, I need to be informed. In order to be informed, I need to know what is happening. In order to know what is happening, I need information. In order to have information, I need it in my aggregator…okay, that might be a bit much, but it would certainly be ideal.
Hopefully, if I can make this work, I will have the information.
Thoughts, comments, criticisms, suggestions…all welcome. Thanks for reading this far; if I get this off the ground, I will add progress reports along the way.
I should mention again, for the record, that this is a personal project, and is no way related to my job. Hopefully, that will make it even better when I get it to work.