A New Way to Keep an Eye on Who Represents You in Congress

by Derek Willis –

empty house congress

Today ProPublica is launching a new interactive database that will help you keep track of the officials who represent you in Congress.

The project is the continuation of two projects I worked on at The New York Times — the first is the Inside Congress database, which we are taking over at ProPublica starting today.

But we also have big plans for it. While the original interactive database at The Times focused on bills and votes, our new project adds pages for each elected official, where you can find their latest votes, legislation they support and statistics about their voting. As we move forward we want to add much more data to help you understand how your elected officials represent you, the incentives that drive them and the issues they care about.

In that way, it is also a continuation of another project I worked on at the Times. In late 2008, The New York Times launched an app called Represent that connected city residents with the officials who represented them at the local, state and federal levels. It was an experiment in trying to make it easier to keep track of what elected officials were doing.

Because ProPublica is rekindling that effort, we’re calling the new project Represent.

The new Represent will help you track members, votes and bills in the House of Representatives and Senate. We’re also launching a Congress API, or Application Programming Interface, so developers can get data about what Congress is doing, too.

Represent will show details of votes and bills and provide a way for you to follow the activities of your elected representatives and understand how they fit into the broader world of American politics. For example, we’ll show you how often a member of the House or Senate votes against a majority of her party colleagues, or the kinds of bills each lawmaker sponsors and cosponsors. We have pages detailing every vote, every bill and every member, with details about each. On the homepage we’ll display significant votes in the House and Senate.

As with our Campaign Finance API, we are also taking over the congressional API that The New York Times started in 2009, with the goal of expanding it and making it even more useful for newsrooms and other users. If you used the previous Congress API published by the New York Times, your code will continue to work for a short time, but you should migrate soon. New users can sign up for a free API key by emailing apihelp@propublica.org.

Our focus is on the current Congress, the 114th, which lasts until the end of 2016, but we have data going back to 1995 and earlier for votes and members. We are taking advantage of new legislative bulk data produced by the Library of Congress and the Government Printing Office to make the process of updating the data more consistent and less reliant on scraping congressional sites, too.

This isn’t the only congressional data site out there, and our goal is to send visitors to other sites that offer valuable features. That’s why we’re linking to individual lawmaker and bill pages on GovTrack and C-SPAN, for example. Like GovTrack, our news app will provide some calculated metrics that visitors can use to help learn more about their representatives. We also have vote cartograms that show not only how each lawmaker voted but the relative clout of delegations.

That’s where you come in – we’d like to know what kinds of congressional information would make it easier to hold Congress accountable for its actions (or inactions)? Would more comparisons between lawmakers’ votes and legislative proposals be helpful? We’re currently showing recent bills by subject, but are there other ways of organizing information about bills that would be useful? What do you want to know about the activities of Congress?

 

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica