Federal Register Makes Itself More Web-Friendly

The Federal Register's format change is designed to improve access to data.
The Federal Register's format change is designed to improve access to data. (Courtesy Of The White House - Courtesy Of The White House)

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By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 5, 2009

Lawyers, lobbyists, librarians and concerned citizens, rejoice: As of Monday, it is much easier to access the Federal Register.

The de facto daily newspaper of the executive branch publishes approximately 80,000 pages of documents each year, including presidential disaster declarations, Medicare reimbursement rates, and thousands of agency rulings on policies ranging from banking to fishing to food. It's a must-read for anyone with business before the federal government or concerned about inside-the-Beltway decisions, including academics, good-government advocates and Register junkies (yes, they do exist).

Starting Monday, issues dating back to 2000 will be available at Data.gov in a form known in the Web world as XML, which allows users to transport data from a Web site and store it, reorganize it or customize it elsewhere. Officials suggested that the move puts readers, rather than the government, in charge of deciding how to access the Register's reams of information.

"In much the same way that newspapers have looked at making content more accessible by changing the print and typeface, we can now do the same thing by making the Federal Register available such that people can manipulate it and customize it and reuse the content to make the information even more accessible," said Beth Noveck, director of the White House Open Government Initiative.

Monday's launch is the outgrowth of President Obama's first executive order, which mandated greater transparency in federal government.

The Office of the Federal Register publishes the Register each business day. The first issue, in 1936, had 11 pages; Friday's had 157. According to the White House, the Register totaled 79,435 pages in fiscal 2008, with 31,879 documents, its largest year ever. Online readers downloaded more than 200 million Register documents in fiscal 2009, the White House said.

The Register may be the ultimate record of the business of the executive branch, but it is universally recognized as a difficult document to navigate.

Monday's release should make it easier for users to find their specific topic without having to wade through volumes of unrelated material. Government officials expect information-hungry users -- be they good-government groups, news organizations or the college student pulling an all-nighter -- to make the most of the new access. The technology will allow users, including Web site designers, to quickly gather data and manipulate the information with tools such as mapping software, word clouds, spreadsheets and e-mail alert systems, White House officials and government observers said.

Lawyers and activists tracking Environmental Protection Agency policies might subscribe to an e-mail alert system built by a good-government group that will notify them of updates published in the Register. A Maryland resident monitoring the impact of federal regulations on his neighborhood might visit a Web site that allows him to search the Register's items by state, county and Zip code.

"It makes it much easier to follow a specific topic area or look at specific regulations from a specific agency or search within a geographic area," said John Wonderlich, policy director of the Sunlight Foundation, an open-government advocacy group.

"It's not going to be useful for everyone, but if you're looking at making government processes more efficient, this view across the government will be very useful," Wonderlich said.

Noveck, her White House colleagues and staffers at the Federal Register and Government Printing Office have been working on the details of Monday's launch since Obama signed the executive order.

Mary Alice Baish, director of government relations for the American Association of Law Libraries, said members are "delighted" about the move. "This is a win-win situation for business, the regulatory community and consumers," she said.

"We see law libraries being able to use the data for empirical research by law professors who want to track agency activities. For being able to track trends in the regulated industries. Even for studies of semantics and language," she added.

It cost the government approximately $100,000 to convert the issues dating to 2000, according to Ray Mosley, director of the Federal Register, which is part of the National Archives and Records Administration. The Register went online in 1994, and converting issues from '94 to 2000 will cost at least another $150,000, Mosley said. He anticipated little effect on his 59-member staff of editors, technical experts and lawyers. He also noted, however, that the changes online may inspire someone to find the next best way to publish, display and distribute the Register.

"Someone could demonstrate something to us, and we could start the wheels rolling," Mosley said.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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