Friday, January 25, 2008

Friday is Resource Day:

(Subject line inspiration is thanks to the Esoteric Science Resource Center.)

Today's nifty resource is, an example of the kind of interesting and useful mash-up that you can generate on the Web. Sure, all this information is available elsewhere, mainly from governmental websites, but governmental websites are notoriously bad at presenting information in a useful format. Ask any public librarian; public librarians have become the go-to people for help in navigating governmental websites and finding information. Which, yes, is part of their role, but wouldn't it be nice if the tools were well designed? (That said, GovTrack's main data source, THOMAS, is well-designed and easy to use. This could have something to do with it being a Library of Congress project.)

But that's another rant.

Anyway, here's the skinny on GovTrack. It's not exactly citizen journalism, but it is an example of the positive side of the "cult of the amateur" (when, by the way, did being an amateur become a pejorative? It can't all be Andrew Keen's fault, can it?). The creator and maintainer of the site is a graduate student at Penn; in other words, this isn't his job, just his passion. (Passion, by the way, is one of the amateur's great strengths, though it can also be a drawback.)

The cool thing about GovTrack is that it makes it easy to track legislative votes. Want to know what current presidential candidates' voting records look like? You can get that out of THOMAS, but you have to compile the information yourself. GovTrack grabs that data and presents it to you. Want to know how your representatives are voting? You can find out, even if you're not sure who they are. You can find out what bills are on the table, what's being voted on, and send all of this stuff to your RSS aggregator; you don't even need to visit the site (though if you don't, you'll miss some features).

Could THOMAS provide all of this? Sure it could. Chances are, it would like to (the Library of Congress did recently reveal its capacity for hipness with its Flickr photo project, which leverages the Web's ability to aggregate knowledge collectively. Are the people tagging the LoC photos historians, or photography experts? Some of them probably are. Most of them probably are not. But what if you recognize something in an unlabeled photo, something that nobody at the LoC has been able to identify? How else would that information ever have come to be associated with that photo?

The point being, sites and services like GovTrack are examples of people building their own tools for others to use, rather than waiting for them to be built. If there's an upside to Internet culture, then that's it.

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