PoliInformatics: A big data approach to government transparency and understanding

Broad participation by informed citizens should lead to better public policy. But that doesn’t mean it is going to happen. Cognitively, people are inclined toward confirmation bias (looking for evidence that confirms what they already believe) and towards simple explanations of complex issues (dimension reduction).

A central goal of this initiative is to develop approaches and tools for improving transparency and understanding of government. Example projects make it easier for citizens to learn about what government actually does, lower the costs of finding things in government, and better understanding how politics can make resolving issues more challenging.

PoliInformatics assumes that interdisciplinary collaborations are essential to making progress on these important topics. The second PiNet workshop, which will include social scientists, computer scientists, information scientists and journalists is scheduled for the summer of 2017. For more information, see poliinformatics.org or follow us on Twitter at @PInformatics

Visualizing Lawmaking: The End of School House Rock?

Most of us learned (in school or by watching School House Rock) that members of Congress dream up solutions to problems in society, introduce them as bills and then struggle to advance those bills through a maze of procedural hurdles to become law. Of course, this civics portrayal of lawmaking vastly oversimplifies the legislative process, but what’s the alternative?

Researchers at the University of Washington’s Center for American Politics and Public Policy are applying data-driven discovery methods popular in the natural sciences to visualize and learn about lawmaking. Legislative Explorer, or LegEx, visually traces the progress bills and resolutions as they move through Congress.

The image below is a spatial representation of the congressional lawmaking process. The left half  represents the U.S. Senate, with senators sorted by party (blue=Democrat) and a proxy for ideology (top=liberal). The House is displayed on the right. Moving in from the borders, the standing committees of the Senate and House are represented, followed by the Senate and House floors. A bill approved by both chambers then moves upward to the President’s desk and into law, while an adopted resolutions (that does not require the president’s signature) moves downward.


The progress of one important bill, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010, is captured in the following animation. The bill (represented by a blue particle) was introduced by House Financial Services Committee chairman Barney Frank (D-MA) on December 2, 2009, and simultaneously referred to several House committees. After passing the House on Dec. 11, it was referred to just one Senate Committee (Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs) chaired by Christopher Dodd (D-CT). The bill was then passed by the Senate on May 20 before ‘ping ponging’ back and forth between the chambers as a conference committee resolved the differences. On July 21 the President signed the bill into law.

The next animation captures the progress of all bills and resolutions introduced in the current 113th Congress (about 8,000 to date).  The different colors of the particles indicates the party and chamber of the bill or resolution’s sponsor. Democrats are blue, Republicans red. Lighter shades of blue and red are bills or resolution sponsored by House members.


Next: Our dysfunctional Congress

Or: check-out LegEx for yourself!

Wilkerson and Parker win Exemplary Research Award

legsimshotCAPPP director John Wilkerson and research affiliate Walter Parker  received the prestigous 2013 Exemplary Research Award from the National Council for Social Studies. The award was for their experimental research examining the benefits of a project based learning approach to high school AP government classes.

The project has also received quite a bit of local media coverage

A Bold Experiment

Less Lecturing, more doing: New approach for AP classes

New teaching approach makes A.P. more accessible to a wider range of students

UW Professors help re-energize AP curriculum




Professor Becca Thorpe’s recent book wins two national awards!

thorpeHow is it that the United States—a country founded on a distrust of standing armies and strong centralized power—came to have the most powerful military in history? Long after World War II and the end of the Cold War, in times of rising national debt and reduced need for high levels of military readiness, why does Congress still continue to support massive defense budgets?

Drawing on an impressive cache of data, Professor Thorpe reveals how changing incentive structures have profoundly reshaped the balance of wartime powers between Congress and the president, resulting in a defense industry perennially poised for war and an executive branch that enjoys unprecedented discretion to take military action.

Winner of the 2015 Richard Neustadt Award for the best book on the Presidency Winner of the 28th Annual D.B. Hardeman Prize from the Lyndon Johnson Foundation

University of Chicago Press 2014

Using plagiarism detection methods to trace the origins of the Affordable Care Act

John Wilkerson (Professor, CAPPP Director), Nicholas Stramp (Graduate Fellow), and David Smith (Assistant Professor, College of Computer and Information Science, Northeastern University) are using computer science text reuse methods commonly used to match genetic sequences or to detect plagiarism to follow policy ideas through the legislative process. One of the cases they’ve examined was the Affordable Care Act. The bill (HR 3590) was 7 pages long until it was amended on the Senate floor to become a 900 page bill. Our project compared the text of the ACA to thousands of other bills introduced in the 111th Congress. In so doing we were able to identify where many of the law’s provisions originated. This work ws featured in The Washington Post blog. and as a Daily Chart by The Economist.

Tegrity recording of  UW eScience presentation (February 26, 2014)

Rebecca Thorpe wins Best Article award

UW Political Science Professor Rebecca Thorpe was awarded this year’s Heinz Eulau prize for the best article published in the academic journal Perspectives on Politics in the past calendar year.

The award is supported by Cambridge University Press. Professor Thorpe received the prize for her article “Perverse Politics: The Persistence of Mass Imprisonment in the Twenty-first Century,” which examines the political economy of mass incarceration. In the article, Thorpe argues that the economic interests of poor, rural areas interact with incarceration policies to create policy lock-in.

Her careful empirical analysis suggests that prisons are located in poor rural areas because of the economic benefits they bring and that by providing a stable source of employment to rural and predominantly white communities, prisons play a distributive function that will make the carceral system resistant to reform.