Version control for Congress

Summary:Tim O'Reilly recently asked Karl Fogel, the force behind Subversion, to talk about versioning at a conference and got back some interesting suggestions about why versioning is more important in the modern world than ever. Karl said: [G]ood version tracking is important in a world where more and more creativity consists of mixing existing things together.

Tim O'Reilly recently asked Karl Fogel, the force behind Subversion, to talk about versioning at a conference and got back some interesting suggestions about why versioning is more important in the modern world than ever. Karl said:

[G]ood version tracking is important in a world where more and more creativity consists of mixing existing things together.

One suggestion that seems to have garnered the most interest concerns applying versioning systems to the legislative process. Tim said:

They say you don't want to see either laws or sausages being made, but I think they are wrong. Imagine how much more transparency and accountability our government would have if it were possible to see what changes were made by whom, who inserted extraneous riders into various bills, and generally to track the influence of various interests by the new visibility into their actual control over the knobs and levers of government!

This would be both easier than you think and harder than you might think. Here's why.

It's easier because it's not that big of a leap from what legislation normally is. If you look at a piece of legislation, it's rarely the actual law. Instead, it's a list of changes to current law. That is, it's already in the form of a diff.

The hard part is that legislative control systems are usually quite ad hoc. In many places, I'd bet they're nothing more than Word (or more likely Word Perfect) files on someone's hard drive somewhere. Congress has an XML initiative that may help other legislative bodies. And this doesn't have the usual qualities you'd see in a successful open source project.

In short, the technology is pretty well understood, but getting the various legislative bodies in the US to understand the problem and appropriate money to fix it will be a long road.

The Sunshine Foundation has some interest in this. I'd think Tim's extraordinary convening power might be brought to bear as well. Maybe a day-long session before the next Emerging Technology conference would be fun and start a spark?

Topics: Microsoft, Software

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