Nearly two years ago, the Federal Register was published in a structured XML format for the first time. This was a big deal in the open government world: the Federal Register, often called the daily newspaper of our federal government, is one of our government’s most widely read publications. And while it could previously be read in paper and PDF forms, it wasn’t easy to digitally manipulate. The XML release changed all this.
When we heard this was happening, four of us here at CITP—Ari Feldman, Bill Zeller, Joe Calandrino, and myself—decided to see how we might be able to improve how citizens could interact with the Federal Register. Our big idea was to make it easy for anyone to comment paragraph-by-paragraph on any of its documents, like a proposed regulation. The site, which we called FedThread, would provide an informal public forum for annotating these documents, and we hoped it would lead to useful online discussions about the merits and weaknesses of all kinds of federal regulatory activity. We also added other useful features, like a full-text search engine and custom RSS feeds. Building these features for the Federal Register only became a straightforward task because of the new XML version. We built the site in just eight days from conception to release.
Another trio of developers in SF also saw opportunities in this free machine-readable resource and developed their own project called GovPulse, which had already won the Sunlight Foundation’s Apps for America 2 contest. They were then approached by the staff of the Federal Register last summer to expand their site to create what would become the new online face of the publication, Federal Register 2.0. Their approach to user comments actually guided users into participating in the formal regulatory comment process—a great idea. Federal Register 2.0 included several features present in FedThread, and many more. Everything was done using open source tools, and made available to the public as open source.
This has left little reason for us to continue operating FedThread. It has continued to reliably provide the features we developed two years ago, but our regular users will find it straightforward to transition to the similar (and often superior) search and subscription features on Federal Register 2.0. So, we’re retiring FedThread. However, the code that we developed will continue to be available, and we hope that enterprising developers will find components to re-use in their own projects that benefit society. For instance, the general purpose paragraph-commenting code that we developed can be useful in a variety of projects. Of course, that code itself was an adaptation of the code supporting another open source project—the Django Book, a free set of documentation about the web framework that we were using to build FedThread (but this is what developers would call a “meta” observation).
Ideally, this is how hacking open government should work. Free machine readable data sets beget useful new ways for citizens to explore those data and make it useful to other citizens. Along the way, they experiment with different ideas, some of which catch on and others of which serve as fodder for the next great idea. This happens faster than standard government contracting, and often produces more innovative results.
Finally, a big thanks to the GPO, NARA and the White House Open Government Initiative for making FedThread possible and for helping to demonstrate that this approach can work, and congratulations on the fantastic Federal Register 2.0.