Now a modern way to share and use data generated by Congress

The best listening experience is on Chrome, Firefox or Safari. Subscribe to Federal Drive’s daily audio interviews at Apple podcasts Where Podcast One.

Congress has hundreds of members, thousands of employees, and a collection of monumental buildings. Now it has an application programming interface, or API. To learn more about APIs and how it will help disseminate information about the legislature, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with product owner Andrew Weber and director of computer design and development Jim Karamanis, both of the Library of Congress.

Tom Temin: It’s good to have you both.

Andre Weber: It’s good to be here.

Jim Karamanis: It’s good to be here. Thanks.

Tom Temin: And Jim Karamanis, we’ll start with you. I guess the implication is that on top of all those members and buildings, there’s a lot of congressionally generated data.

Jim Karamanis: Yes, there is a huge amount of data and there is a great need in the community to be able to access it directly from machine to machine.

Tom Temin: OK. And machine to machine takes an API. Andrew, in simple terms, what is an application programming interface? And how does it help?

Andre Weber: It’s a way for computers to take data from Congress.gov and display it in other places. So it’s just one more tool in our arsenal to help disseminate federal legislation more widely. Congress.gov is the main access point to the website. But now we will be able to share this through the machine and directly the machine.

Tom Temin: And how this effort to create this API, I guess it’s a set of APIs, which fell in the Library of Congress and not to say, there is a computer operation somewhere there on Capitol Hill, too ?

Jim Karamanis: The Library of Congress has therefore been the custodian of this data for a few decades now. So we’re actually the ones providing Congress.gov for Congress. We are therefore the guardians of the data. Thus, we are the ones who make the API available to the public.

Tom Temin: And give us an idea of ​​data types, range of data, subjects, what does it look like for someone who knows databases?

Andre Weber: The various collections we have on Congress.gov are accessible through the API, and we’re building to have it all there. But right now, there’s legislation, there’s member feeds, committee reports, things like that, that you can access.

Tom Temin: Because when I see legislation, normally all I get is a big giant PDF. But is there a machine-readable format in which this also exists, and perhaps the system that generates the PDF?

Andre Weber: So in addition to the PDF there are the text versions, but we also have the abstracts, the Congressional Research Service has the abstracts which will be available through the API. In addition to actions, the state steps of legislation also. So that’s the whole bill.

Tom Temin: Ok, and how much? I mean, are there thousands of databases, hundreds, millions, what is the scope of the whole project here?

Andre Weber: So there are high-level databases of legislation, as well as the different types of documents that we have on the site. So the Congressional Record, the members you can pull from if you go to api.congress.gov, you can see the list of all the points you can start using the API with.

Tom Temin: And maybe give us an idea of ​​what someone outside might want to do, and how can they do it with the API, for example, whenever Congress mentions such and such, or such and such, or maybe just make a living for us, so what can we get an idea of ​​how it might be used? Jim?

Jim Karamanis: So there are a variety of external people who use the data, some sell the data, some provide it for public use, data transparency advocates. So it depends on the need. But it allows you to create relationships with data that you don’t necessarily see on Congress.gov. For example, people like to see who voted on what.

Tom Temin: So, in other words, someone could create an app to see how those six members voted on something with that particular piece of information or that particular topic.

Jim Karamanis: Absolutely.

Tom Temin: But it goes deeper than just keywords and that sort of thing. Just to say?

Jim Karamanis: Yes, absolutely, but it requires an understanding of the data in order to be able to create these experiences.

Tom Temin: And how do we get this understanding? Is it by searching the APIs or the list of databases? Or how would you know what’s there?

Andre Weber: We have a lot of documentation on GitHub. So if you go to api.congress.gov there’s a link to our GitHub space where we document the API changes, some improvements, and a bit of how to use and how to get started with the API herself. If you have any questions or have a problem with a particular part of the API, you can also report an issue where we review them and start working on small bugfixes or possible future improvements to the API. APIs.

Tom Temin: And we speak with Andrew Weber. He’s a product owner, and with Jim Karamanis, director of computer design and development, both at the Library of Congress and give us an idea of ​​how you developed the API. Do you have people there who can program these things, or did you have to get a contract and have a contractor do it?

Jim Karamanis: So we have both actually, we have internal resources at the Library of Congress who architect and develop systems. We also use contractors to help with development.

Tom Temin: And what are the security implications here? Do people who want to build an app just download the database and then it’s on their systems? Or are they creating applications that constantly arrive in the Library of Congress repository?

Jim Karamanis: So the answer is yes, it can work both ways. But the API has been designed to be resilient so that we are able to handle any traffic that will hit the API.

Tom Temin: And can Congress itself benefit from a better understanding of its own history and activities? Because sometimes it looks like, you know, they could use a little continuity knowledge up there.

Jim Karamanis: Absolutely. And sharing data across the hill is something that’s been happening for a long time. And there are entities among legislative branch agencies that pull directly from Congress.gov via the API.

Tom Temin: And I imagine the federal agencies want to know, say, the legal situation in which they are writing a rule. What’s the story here? What could have been legislative changes that they overlooked, maybe happening from time to time, or setting up a legal situation. I imagine there are many applications that the agencies themselves could make of it.

Jim Karamanis: Well, that’s right, Tom, and there are agencies that have pulled this data in the past, and now they can access the data directly through the API.

Tom Temin: Alright, I guess there is no charge for APIs. What do people who want to start do?

Andre Weber: You can go to api.congress.gov, click register, and you can register, you submit your email address, and you’ll get an API key. And then you can start from there. It’s really quite simple to get this API key.

Tom Temin: And people trying, again, to figure this out and build applications, can they use the API for other data sources outside of the Library of Congress, or do they need the API someone else to do it?

Andre Weber: Yeah, I think you might be able to see where our API might line up and meet somebody else’s API and kind of combine a bit. But it takes some expertise and knowledge on how to do it.

Tom Temin: We need an API to APIs, I suppose, one day. Well, it could go on forever. And you have an event. And you’re going to deploy that and kind of explain it to interested parties. Tell us about that.

Andre Weber: Yes, we are very excited. We’re going to have our third Congress.gov virtual public forum. It’s September 21. So Wednesday is 1:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m., you can go ahead and register. And you can see that Library of Congress blog and there’s a story on the Congress.gov homepage. There is a link to the events, you can save it and you can also submit comments. Part of this forum is that it’s time for us to gather feedback from all Congress.gov users. But one of the items on the agenda is a panel presentation where we’re going to talk about the new API. We’ll also talk about some of the recent improvements to Congress.gov over the past year since the last public forum. And so this is a great time to also hear from Congress.gov’s data partners from across Capitol Hill, the House and Senate, and GPO, who work hand-in-hand with us on Congress.gov.

Tom Temin: And by the way, did any members express interest in this and say, hey, thanks for doing this.

Andre Weber: We saw a recent tweet from Rep. Steny Hoyer (DN.Y.) who was very appreciative of the API just looked at.

Tom Temin: All right, let’s hope others join the bandwagon here. Andrew Weber is product owner and Jim Karamanlis is director of computer design and development at the Library of Congress. Thank you very much for joining me.

Jim Karamanis: Thanks Tom.