Grad student's site helps track new laws


Govtrack.us provides free information about government


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[Lea Chu/The Daily Pennsylvanian] Linguistics graduate student Joshua Tauberer started a Web site, Govtrack.us, which provides information on congressional legislation.


Second-year Linguistics graduate student Joshua Tauberer says he doesn't know much about politics.

But his new Web site is making it easy for thousands of others to learn about the government each day.

Tauberer started work on Govtrack.us in 2001 to keep track of federal legislation and help citizens get in touch with their representatives in Congress.

"I saw that there was a lot of information online already from the government about legislation and Congress," he said, but these databases were difficult to use and "not meant for the average, everyday citizen."

The Web site automatically searches official government sources online for the specific information a user wants.

The key, Tauberer says, is that these data are presented in a user-friendly way.

Tauberer thought of the idea of starting Govtrack when he was an undergraduate at Princeton University. The databases he used for governmental research were so complex that he wanted to simplify the process for others, he said.

He crafted a computer program to search existing governmental sites and consolidate this information, and Govtrack.us was brought online in September 2004.

The site also has a map feature that allows people to find out what congressional district they live in.

Govtrack users can get e-mail updates and RSS feeds personalized for particular legislative interests.

There are currently about 4,000 people signed up for the service, and about 5,000 people visit the site each day.

By linking his information to other sources, Tauberer "enriches the information," said Peggy Garvin, editor of the United States Government Internet Manual, an annotated resource to over 2,000 federal government Web sites.

Govtrack itself is copyrighted, but visitors can publish any information they find while using the site.

"All the information that powers Govtrack is freely reusable for people to experiment with and play with," Tauberer said.

But while some other government-tracking sites charge fees for the information they offer, since Govtrack is just a hobby for Tauberer, he says he doesn't feel the need to charge users for his service.

He says he hopes to eventually set up chat rooms or listservs for individual congressional districts so that users can discuss local political issues.

Through working on Govtrack, Tauberer says he has learned a lot about how the government works.

"I had no idea ... that senators and representatives will sponsor bills that I presume they know have no chance of seeing the light of day," he said. "They just do it because people are lobbying for it."

If his site helps citizens become more aware of political issues, it will "increase accountability for elected officials," Tauberer said.

"It's one of the great things about the Internet that is now possible," Political Science professor Rogers Smith said. It can "help fellow citizens learn about government and congressional actions. I think it's a valuable service."

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