Wednesday, August 31, 2011

California Hackathon: Sunlight, Common Cause and More

[Edit: Sign up to join us here (Facebook event)]

The California Codes Hackathon, now scheduled for September 17 in San Francisco and Denver, is gathering steam.
In addition to the excellent hackers who've signed up to prepare data for the hackathon (check out the wiki), supporters now include:

Sunlight Foundation (thanks, Laurenellen McCann and James Turk), Common Cause (Philip Ung), Nation Builder (Adriel Hampton). We'll be announcing more soon...
Sign up now to join us: Facebook Event or through NationBuilder (same list).

Monday, August 22, 2011

California Codes: Everything Down is Live Again

Last week, Amazon Web Services notified me that something went wrong with the hardware hosting our California Codes site ( Bad timing, given our preparation for a California Law Hackathon. I built this originally as a side project and didn't have a back-up (note to future self), so I had to rebuild it from the sources. After a few trials and errors, the site is now live again, and I've added more notes to the CAlaw github Readme about how to host this Django site on Amazon EC2. In theory, that should allow anyone to build and host their own site for California Legislation, but it's not so easy, so carpe hacker.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

California Laws Hackathon + Calaw site down

Plans for the California laws hackathon are moving forward, with some sponsorships secured, thanks to Philip Ung (@philrung) at Common Cause (@CommonCauseCA). Generally updates are added at More details soon...

Also wanted to note that my California laws site ( is down, due to an Amazon Web Services interruption.  I will restore it soon on a new  AWS instance.  If you're interested in such things, the notice is below the fold.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

California Law API: Preparation for Hackathon

[Edit: Sign up to join us here (Facebook event)]

It's true, California's laws now come with an unofficial RESTful API. This is a great boost for California Law Hackathon plans: now programmers can dive right in and develop innovative ways of presenting and navigating the data in their favorite format- JSON, XML, RDF among others.  If you want to jump ahead to see the API specifications, they are available on the site here and I've posted them here on the California Law Hackathon wiki.
California Hackathon update
This Sunday, Greg Willson (Granicus) and I were joined by Alex Hendler (Ontolawgy, LLC) in Botswana on a Google+ Hangout (my first) to help set the groundwork for the hackathon. Main points of the discussion:
  • Target date for the hackathon: September 3-417-18 (update)
  • Prepare data and tools for hackathon participants
  • Prepare a list of projects and goals (e.g. legislative time-machine, before and after redlining for bills)
Notes from the meeting are here. Twitter hash: #calawhack
How does the API fit in?
I spoke yesterday with Grant Vergottini, founder of Xcential, who foresees a transformation in legislative technology like the one he helped to usher in to the graphic design world, with the development of Computer Aided Design (CAD) software. He has developed a web-accessible interface to the California laws, that can provide legislative data in a wide variety of formats. This data is updated daily, and should lend itself well to the kind of "time machine" presentation we've discussed for the hackathon.  In preparation for the hackathon, Grant put together the API specifications linked above.  Test them out and share any feedback you have on this API and other tools or data you'd like to see available for California legislation.
That's great, but: What is an API?
A web API (Application Programming Interface) tells programmers how to access data from a website.  FacebookGoogleTwitterLinkedInApple and pretty much any "Web 2.0" site provides some API to their web services.  In a truly Mr. Jobs Goes to Washington moment, the Federal Register announced last week that it was releasing a fully RESTful API, complete with Github account and developer's page.  I am excited that California's laws now have their own (unofficial) API, too. 

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

CA Hackathon Planning Meeting

This Sunday, August 7 at 1pm PST, we are having a virtual + in-person planning meeting for the hackathon, with a twitter hashtag #CaLawHack.

I've set up a collaborative editor at so we can jot notes for the planning meeting itself.

Look for more details on, where Luke Fretwell has generously offered to publicize the meeting.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Hackathon Anyone? California Opens Legislative Database

So it's not quite Wikileaks, and it's actually officially sanctioned by California's Legislative Counsel. But an email I recently received on Sunlight Foundation's OpenStates listserv could be the first step to fully opening up California's legislation to the public. In the world of legislative transparency, this counts as exciting stuff.

I've written before about my efforts to wrangle text files of California's codes into structured data that is easier to navigate than the official site ( I've posted the new version of California's codes on, and made the computer code available on github. Now, California's Legislative counsel has made the raw data, in XML format, available for FTP download here. What is remarkable, is that the ftp data comes with all of the SQL scripts and a guide to set up your own database of California's laws and bills, *updated each day*.

Now, I've been to the ftp site before, and perhaps this information was all there (though I don't recall seeing it). [UPDATE: The files were posted in an obscure corner of the site about a year ago as the result of a lawsuit by] But in any case, this makes it possible to create a model site for California that goes beyond what has been possible for other state legislation to date. Much of the work that has made this possible was done by Grant Vergottini, who runs, and whose team developed the authoring system that California's legislature uses to write bills.

The CA site could:
1. Show a "point-in-time" version of California's law.
2. Show a redlined version of California's Codes, for any bill that would amend them.
3. Immediately update California's Codes when a new bill is passed.
4. Feature modern search and navigational tools to smoothly get from any place in the codes to any other.

A group is now forming to hack on this site and make it a reality, with a Calaw hackathon in the near future. If you're interested, contact me directly (aih at tabulaw dot com) or leave a comment.