Friday, June 25, 2010

The People and Impetus behind Many Bills is a public watchdog group that uses the data from Congressional voting records on bills, supporting and opposing interests for each bill, and campaign contribution data to revealing connections that could never before be easily seen.

In September 2009, the Visual Communication Lab (the VCL) of the IBM Center for Social Software hosted an event called "the Transparent Text Symposium," spurred by the US government initiative for transparency. MapLight had heard about the symposium and sent the VCL the text of bill HR627, the "Credit CARD Act of 2009." This bill (now Public Law No: 111-24) is an amendment to the Truth in Lending Act, and was created to make sweeping changes in the credit card industry and protect consumers against egregious pricing.

The bill is 33 pages. The content of almost all of it relates to the title of the bill, and what you'd expect. On page 31, however, section 512, titled PROTECTING AMERICANS FROM VIOLENT CRIME, concerns the right to bear firearms in National Parks. Two questions immediately arise: 1. Why would anyone want to allow automatic rifles in National Parks, and 2. What was that doing in a bill about consumer credit card protection? Then the VCL asked themselves a third question: "As a visual communication lab, how could we help people find things like this?"

Lab members Irene Ros and Yannick Assogba decided to take on the challenge to create a tool to help reveal various topics in a bill - not just the bizarre outliers like this one - but all topics. This came to be the germination of a research project - how could a text corpora best be navigated visually? What impact would a visualization have on people's ability to find what they were looking for. And, who would be likely to use this type of tool?

According to Assogba, "We decided to present the bills in a map mode with the text as a zoomable entity. Knowing that these bills are filled with "legalese" our first step was to help people navigate through the data to find the general area they wanted to examine." On April 5, 2010, after many designs, prototypes, and user input, the team launched a public Beta of what is now called Many Bills. Says Ros, "Our hope is that the interface offers users an overview of this complex dataset while still allowing for full access to the original text." Now that the tool has been available for almost three months, they are beginning to understand what things people want to explore and how better to show that. The next big push is to contact Many Bills visitors who have offered to provide feedback and see how they respond to some proposed feature additions and design changes the researchers would like to make.

Have you visited Many Bills? Try browsing. Or, take a look at various versions of HR627 on its journey through Congress. If you have comments, click the Feedback button on the site to give Assogba and Ros your ideas.

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