Congress pushes for APIs, central data repository after hackathon

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., joins hackathon participants Oct. 23 at the Capitol Visitor Center as they brainstorm ways to improve Congress' use of technology. (House of Representatives report)

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Congress isn’t doing enough to communicate with the public using “digital platforms” — like online portals and apps — and it’s undermining lawmakers’ relationships with constituents, according to a new report from congressional leaders.

Legislators on Capitol Hill hosted the second Congressional Hackathon in late October to spark discussion between lawmakers and American citizens on ways to modernize Congress and the legislative process. From that meeting, congressional leaders walked away looking immediately to make data more open and accessible. Specifically, in a report about the hackathon, lawmakers recommend creating public-facing APIs and a new website — Data.House.Gov — to act as a central repository for the House’s machine-readable data resources, along with a list of other potential action items.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., helped drive the discussion during the hackathon, emphasizing the need for a more digitally connected Congress.

“Modernizing government technology is absolutely critical if our democracy is going to remain as open and transparent as we want it,” Hoyer said in written remarks included in the report. “Making government more efficient, effective, transparent, and responsive, starts of course with making sure those who serve in government are better connected digitally to those who serve.”

McCarthy said in the report he wants a government that’s efficient, effective and accountable — all of which it can accomplish with modern technology.

“We are living through an era of dramatic change, with technology driving significant changes to almost every sector of our economy,” McCarthy said. “Unfortunately, the government’s use of those technologies often seems a generation behind. This is what motivates our conversation today; while we may not always agree on every policy proposal, we must work together to modernize our government for the digital age.”

Participants divided into five groups, each focusing on a different facet of Congress that could better use technology. The hackathon also focused on ways to make hearings more effective and accessible, and improve communication with American constituents.

“Digital platforms provide us with an opportunity to talk with the people, not just parrot talking points. We need to think about how these platforms can serve our institution’s core legislative purpose,” McCarthy said. “Think of committee hearings; television didn’t just change the press conferences, they changed the hearings themselves. That’s how we need to think, as we move Congress into the digital age.”

He concluded: “That’s what today’s Hackathon is about: bringing a diverse group of people together, even those who don’t always agree, to think about how to improve this institution.”

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