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September 17, 2013

The U.S. Constitution as Open Data? Not This Constitution Day.

By Daniel Schuman and Matt Rumsey (The Sunlight Foundation)

GPO logoToday is Constitution Day. On this date in 1787, delegates to the Constitutional Convention met to sign the document they created. We live in the world’s oldest continuous constitutional democracy, and our written constitution — as interpreted by the courts and fleshed out by Congress — governs us still.

How has the Constitution been interpreted over the years? Congress charged its library with publishing an explanation of the document as it has been interpreted by the Supreme Court. This legal treatise, known as The Constitution of the United States, Analysis and Interpretation, or simply Constitution Annotated, is published as a full volume once a decade, with updates released every two years. The legal research behind the Constitution Annotated goes on continuously, and a website maintained inside Congress — available to staff only — is kept up-to-date in real time.

We believe the public should have the benefit of these ongoing updates and Congress’ Joint Committee on Printing agreed. The Committee directed the Library of Congress and the Government Printing Office (GPO) to make the Constitution Annotated available online to the public as it is updated. Earlier today, GPO released the treatise on an iPhone app and website. Unfortunately, the effort falls short of the mark.

While it is laudable that GPO is pushing information to mobile devices, the iPhone implementation fails to make use of the advantages that platform provides, with a resulting app that is difficult to read and hard to navigate. The webpage containing downloadable PDF files similarly fails to take advantage of the benefits of internet publication.

Troublingly, re-publishers of the Constitution Annotated that traditionally have made the treatise available in user-friendly formats, such as Cornell’s Legal Information Institute, will have to undertake significant effort to transform the PDFs into useful formats, particularly as the underlying data is not published as structured data. By contrast, when the government publishes information as structured data, as we have seen with the publication of the entire U.S. code as well as the Federal Register in XML, tremendous value is created that benefits everyone.

GPO should publish updates to the Constitution Annotated in a structured, machine readable format to help the public realize the full benefits of up-to-date access to the legal treatise. While we are pleased that GPO and the Library of Congress worked together to develop a digital edition of the Constitution Annotated, in the future, they should consult with re-publishers and end users to make sure they meet everyone’s needs.

So today, on Constitution Day, we are writing again to the Government Printing Office and the Library of Congress to urge them to publish the Constitution Annotated online, in real-time, in a format that everyone can use.

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