Running a little late, so I’m blogging about yesterday’s sessions. (I know…so much for timeliness). Yesterday and today were very busy, needless to say.

First thought about this session? Wow, that’s a long title. šŸ™‚ Many of these sessions have excessively long titles, but this session made up for it. I learned about a lot of interesting tools.

Andrew Hoppin started things off – he’s from the NASA CoLab, and has done a lot of work to bring more transparency within NASA. But quickly Micah Sifry took over. Sifry is with the Sunlight Foundation (who are VERY well represented at this conference) and the Personal Democracy Forum. We’ve worked with Sunlight before, and they’re a great organization whose focus is really to improve the legislative process by using the internet and the social web to “shine light” on what goes on in Washington.

He started off by telling us about some fantastic resource sites, much like MAPlight.org, which I just wrote about, that allow you to see various types of information about bills, lobbyists, funding, etc. His particular examples were fedspending.org and opensecrets.org. He mentioned that often this data is not super reliable, either because it’s outdated or because the source hasn’t exactly been forthcoming.

But what he dove into next was the most interesting – the idea that people really want to share information and opinions (made clear by sites like yelp, amazon reviews, ratemycop, discussion forums, etc.) so why shouldn’t we have this type of a feedback loop with legislation and government? This is a potential way for us to improve the legislative process by voicing our opinions. It was frequently brought up that this is not a flawless system just yet – obviously, there’s going to be a lot of noise in this feedback, and perhaps the biggest challenge is to effectively filter through this information.

Another interesting site is earmarkwatch, sponsored by Taxpayers for Common Sense. Basically, people can find earmarks to bills, analyze what they actually mean (because they’re frequently cryptic), and potentially use it as a tool for exposing shady earmarks. It’s a great tool for investigative journalists and bloggers.

He also mentioned that with the growing popularity of sites like OpenCongress, people have begun to use these sites not just to critique bills, but also to share their personal experiences about how the bill is effecting them (he used the example of a bill effecting unemployment). I think this is a fascinating and unexpected use for these types of sites.

Yet another example was publicmarkup.org, which allows people to comment on legislation before it’s actually presented to any body. Of course, legislators would have to embrace this and feel comfortable enough posting the draft online, but if many did, it would be a great tool, and could definitely change the way the legislative process works.

Here are some basic points that he talked about next:
– getting legislation and hearings online (and in advance – draft text, three days before they vote on it)
– addressable bill text – different links, sections, etc so it’s easy to digest
– doesn’t think we need more emails to Congress (uhh…I disagree :))
– forums where people can give feedback, and Congress can check in on it

It’s certainly hard to see this being immediately effective and accepted by our government, but if enough people pushed for it, I could see it starting to build a movement.

Next was Jeanne Holm of NASA/Jet propulsion lab and the California Institute of Technology. She talked a lot about how NASA is using facebook, twitter, and Second Life to bring people into the process and make them feel more involved. Interesting, but not particularly relevant to me personally.

One thing I found sadly hilarious was when Justin Hamilton, a senior adviser to Rep. George Miller of CA, mentioned that they did a virtual Congressional session in Second Life, but that they didn’t ultimately think it was worth it because there wasn’t much interest. I hate to say it, but “duh.” I may be wrong about this Second Life thing, but I will be happy to laugh in people’s faces if it fails.

There were a few other topics, but the last one that interested me was the idea of putting data together in interesting ways that gets people interested, presented by W. David Stephenson. He showed some interesting examples of data graphs, map mashups, etc. One of them was a map of all the potholes in DC with frequently updated status messages. Useful, I suppose. Then there was illegalsigns.ca, something more close to my heart. This site tracks Toronto’s outdoor advertising industry, and posts the locations of illegal billboards. There’s also Chicagocrime.org, which is essentially a police blotter on a map.

A very useful and interesting session, even if it was poorly moderated and presenters didn’t get their fair time.

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