New Hampshire’s state government publicly embraced the open source movement recently by allowing its residents extensive access to app-friendly state legislature activity, arranged in handy pipe-separated database and spreadsheet files.
Simply put, this means that researchers, journalists and developers can now access the minutiae of government data in New Hampshire in an extremely easy-to-use manner. Previously, this information was only available in print or through clunky, hard-to-operate web pages.The state’s legislature, the New Hampshire General Court, kicked off the new initiative last week. According to Shannon Shutts of the New Hampshire Speaker’s Office, state legislative data started being placed online in Excel and Access format on January 26, 2011. Audio archives of state senate committee meetings are also available to the public.
In New Hampshire, a Republican-dominated state where a strong Libertarian faction is active in local politics, the decision has met with acclaim. The move is also being portrayed as a paragon of financial savvy: Instead of devoting the press office and at the IT staff’s precious work hours to helping look up obscure legislative information and reducing server loads, those resources can be reallocated for other purposes.
Several political groups in the state have been engaged in data-scraping the website of the New Hampshire General Court, causing severe server load problems. The best known of these is the New Hampshire Liberty Alliance, a “non-partisan coalition working to increase individual freedom in New Hampshire,” which posts state legislative activity online to their website.
Civil liberties activists hail open government as a way to increase citizen awareness of government activities and as a simply way of offering greater political transparency. The OpenGovernment project currently data-scrapes state legislature information in California, Louisiana, Maryland, Texas and Wisconsin in order to increase public transparency.
According to New Hampshire House Speaker William O’Brien, “We are committed to bringing transparency to state government and making it easier for people to know what their government is doing. In addition this effort should remove excessive traffic and reduce the server load, which will in turn make use of the website much faster for the public.”
Like many other state legislatures, New Hampshire’s General Court is composed of part-time legislators. One state representative who strongly supported the open government initiative, Steve Cohn (R) of the Merrimack district, doubles as a Drupal developer. Cohn told TPM that “Openness is nonpartisan and every one wins. Embracing that should be the goal of any good politician, and that it hasn’t yet become commonplace says a great deal about how broken the system is still.”
New Hampshire is planning additional initiatives that will make open government partisans very happy. According to Nick Judd of techPresident, efforts are underway to make data on roll coll votes available – something that is not featured in the databases and spreadsheets currently being made public.