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New Alert Service, Scout, Provides Updates on US Federal and State Legislation

If I never update this blog again, blame Sunlight Labs. I read their latest blog post and now I can’t… stop… playing… with… Scout.

Scout, at https://scout.sunlightfoundation.com/, is an alerts service which gives you updates on federal and state legislation, as well as speeches in Congress and Federal regulations. Federal legislation I’ve found all sorts of tools for, but when I was poking around for a place to get state legislative updates last year, I had a heck of a time — it was pretty much hit and miss and seemed to depend a lot on what state you’re in.

Scout starts out looking like a search engine so I did a simple search for “solar power”. The results page lets your break down your search results into several sections: bills in Congress, speeches, in Congress, state bills, and federal regulations. Choosing one of these allows you to do a little more delineation; for example, choosing to look at bills in Congress lets you choose what stage they’re at (passed, vetoed, etc.) and choosing state bills allows you to specify particular states.

Information in the search results is minimal; looking at solar energy bills in Montana provides brief information on the three bills that were returned, but additional information and the full text of the bill is no more than a couple clicks away. Similarly, searching for the number of times the word goofy has been used in congressional speeches (apparently former senator Byron Dorgan likes that word a lot) provides a brief context of the speech in the search results but the original speech is only a click away, with additional clicks to the source and the original GPO transcription with all its Green Acres references intact.

So the searching is good but the alerting is great. To use alerts you’ll need to have an account (it’s free) and if you want to get SMS alerts you’ll have to verify your phone number (Scout sends you a text and you enter the verification code from the text.) To set up alerts just do your searches. For every search result you’ll see a blue “Create Alert” button above the search results. Click that to save an alert.

All your alerts will be gathered in one spot, and you can edit them there to specify whether you want your alerts by text, e-mail, or not at all.

I immediately set up several alerts for state legislation; hopefully this’ll be easier for me to keep up with what’s going on in my state than what I’m using now, which is a couple of push notifications and lots of manual review. Thanks, Scout!

Limit Your Google Search to Official US State Web Sites

I got an e-mail yesterday from Charles R., who wanted help with a search he was trying to do. He wanted to be able to search just US state Web sites. He had tried to use site:gov as a search modifier but he reported it was missing too much.

As I was reading his e-mail I thought, “Doesn’t Google have a search for this?” Surprise! Uncle Sam Google Search, which searched only government Web sites, closed without fanfare over a year ago. No wonder Charles wasn’t having any luck.

So I thought about it for a few minutes. Charles knew how to limit his search to individual Web sites, but he didn’t know how to create a modifier for all possible state Web sites. And he’s right — it would be a heck of a job to do manually and would go past Google’s search limits. So I did it for him. Maybe you’ll find it useful too.

In my experience official state Web sites come in three flavors:

Name + gov (Alabama.gov)
Abbreviation + gov (Al.gov)
Abbreviation + us (Al.us)

So I made a list of the fifty states, with these three domain types for each state, and dumped it into a custom Google search engine that’s available at http://www.google.com/cse/home?cx=017167864583314760984:iecnygefhky.

Put in any keywords you want and your search results will be restricted to official state Web sites only.

Search just State Web Sites

That didn’t take too long to do, so I wondered if there were any other ways to slice the search results. And I came up with a couple. If you look at the search result page, you’ll see two tabs at the top that allow you to limit your search results to city or county Web sites only. These two restrictions just take advantage of the fact that city Web sites tend to use the pattern http://www.xx.ci.us and county sites tend to use the pattern http://www.xx.co.us . It’s not exaustively inclusive, but sample searches I ran brought me a lot of results.

Anyway, just something I quickly knocked together in order to help somebody out; it isn’t meant to take the place of Google Uncle Sam, just make it easier to search state Web sites. If you like it, if you can think of a way I can improve it, if you have a search refine problem you’re trying to solve, let me know. Thanks for sending the question Charles R! This was fun.

Google Launches Web Site to Cover US Elections

Google Elections

Google Elections

I don’t know about you, but I’m already up to my elbows in election coverage. But there’s no avoiding it — there’s a presidential election in November and we’re going to be hearing about it until then. So to make it a little easier to keep up, Google has announced a new election hub at http://google.com/elections/ed/us. (There’s one for Egypt, too, at http://google.com/elections/ed/eg, but I’ll be covering the US version here.)

The site contains news about the elections in general in the middle, with the Democrat and Republican candidates on the left nav. And let me start my rant here.

I don’t care what your politics are. Truly. I strive to keep ResearchBuzz apolitical, because ideally, an interest in well-crafted information pools, organized data, and groovy pinball machines should cross all political boundaries. Right?

But it bothers me that in these times, when dissatistfaction with politics is so intense, that Google is sticking with providing information on only two political parties. It’s not like Google doesn’t have enough newsprint or space in its magazine. It’s not like there aren’t automated mechanisms for gathering information. Yes, there are eight gazillion political parties and maybe you don’t want to include the Tomato Donut Party that has only three members. But you could make a case for the Green and Libertarian parties, which have appeared regularly on many state ballots. You could make a case for the Constitution Party, which is the other “third party” with over 100,000 registered voters according to Wikipedia. And you could point at the many independent candidates in recent history which have managed to get on state ballots despite, um, interesting ballot access laws (that’s a whole ‘nother indignant post) as an indicator of voter interest in choices.

My point is that you could use standards to define political parties and candidates for inclusion that would reach beyond Democrat and Republican. Would you make everybody happy? Good grief, no, this is politics after all. On the other hand, Google could choose to do what mainstream media has often failed to do: let the American voter know they have other choices besides Democrat and Republican.

Okay, I’m done. It’s 3:30 am and I just finished a political rant. I feel all icky.

HOW ‘BOUT THEM WELL-CRAFTED INFORMATION POOLS?

Google Elections -- Thin Crust Party

Anyway, candidates on the left. Also on the left: political issues! Yes, you can choose from several issues, including Economy, Heathcare, and Social Issues. (That seems somewhat limited, but remember, you can always run your own search, as I did for “Pizza” above. THIN CRUST PARTY!) Choose one and you’ll get news in the middle. You can choose to look just at news, or just at video. Google puts only a few videos on the site put points you to an entire YouTube channel devoted to politics if you want more.

Google also has trends for the candidates, showing volume of search, news mentions, and YouTube video views. (You can break these down to the day, and theoretically look at individual candidate results, but every time I tried that I got an “unresponsive script” warning.) There’s an “On the Ground” section that maps not only news stories but also YouTube videos (including adorable local car dealership ads.) Iowa is the hot spot right now as you can imagine.

This is a good start, but considering the rise of Facebook and Twitter, it felt a little lacking. When reviewing candidate news I could start here, but I would rapidly branch off in other directions.

Poking (Unsuccessfully) Around Digital Camelot

You know, when I was thinking about the first Presidential administration to have an online digital archive (you gotta have something to occupy your mind when you’re standing in line at the bank) I was guessing Jimmy Carter (the timing, the historical controversies that are still relevant) or Bill Clinton (timing, still in the public eye.) But JFK works too.

If you’ve been following the news at all you know that last week the John F. Kennedy Presidental Library and Museum launched the JFK Digital Library at http://www.jfklibrary.org/. The entire contents of the library aren’t digitized (of course) but the site is divided into a searchable archive of digital content as well as topical sections.

The topical sections include a diary for each of JFK’s days in office. You can view highlights of that day and look at the specific schedule of appointments as well (though these are somewhat hard to read as they look like they’ve been photocopied about a hundred times.) There’s also a special section for the JFK inauguration (people rocked some hats in the 60s) and a selection of multimedia from JFK’s historical speeches.

I would like to tell you all about my searching in the digital archive. Unfortunately despite trying it over 2 days, I got either repeated Server 500 errors (I suspect too many server connections) or the message that the search was down for maintenance and not available.

I’m going to try to come back and look at this later (I’m putting this up to remind me as much as anything else) but at the moment the digital archive is only partially functional. It’s 2011, and Web sites are still underestimating how popular they’re going to be! (Oh well. I guess it’s the kind of problem you want to have.)

Unclaimed IRS Refund Database Allows for Quick, Simple Searching

I have seen state unclaimed fund databases before, but I didn’t remember this resource from the National Taxpayers Union, which is currently in its tenth year. This is a simple search that allows you to do fast searching across the whole US – though the years available are somewhat limited. Start your search at http://www.ntu.org/tax-basics/does-irs-owe-you-money/.

The search is simple: last name, state, and year (unfortunately you can only do searches for 2008 and 2009.) A search returns taxpayers in order of state with first and last name, city, state, and zip code. All the ones I saw said “(Tax Refund Available)” but there might be some other notation.

You don’t make contact via the NTU if you happened to be listed here; instead the site gives an 800-number that you can use to call the IRS for more information.

Easy to use, fast results. Good luck in your search.

The Public Sector Excellence Database

The Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy (CLOSUP) at the University of Michigan has started a site called the CLOSUP Public Sector Excellence Database, available at http://closup.umich.edu/public-sector-excellence/. This site was designed to provide information on innovative, award-winning programs implemented by a variety of groups including state and local governments.

You can look for the latest additions to the database or you can browse the entire contents, but you can also search. I tried to use the site search for a wide number of keywords, but it kept coming back with no search results. There’s also an advanced search that uses Google, so I did a search for inurl:public-sector-excellence sidewalks. I got six results.

Projects include an overview and summary of the project and information about any awards that it’s won. There’s also contact information for both the project and the award. Among the projects I found here: Residential Sidewalk Partnership Program (municipal and resident partnership for sidewalk repair), Stormwater Labeling and Mapping (storm drain labeling and road sweeps), and Citizen University (an effort to educate citizens about the workings of the municipal system.)

Use the Google search if you want to do serious searching, but the database is small enough that you can also browse fairly easily. I’d like that Residential Sidewalk Partnership Program in my neighborhood…

Topix Adds Election Resource

Topix announced last week the launch of Election 2010: Citizen Sound-Off, at http://www.topix.com/pr/election2010. The site is for discussing elections and candidates on a hyperlocal level (by zip code.)

From the front page, enter a zip code to start. Good ol’ 90210 got me the page for Beverly Hills, CA, with several polls on the front page representing state, state/federal, and very local offices. It looks like generally only the Republicans and Democrats are shown (the race for governor was an exception) which is a shame because in some cases a third-party candidate is doing better in the poll then one of the main two candidates (the Green Party candidate for lieutenant governor, for example, is polling better at this writing than the Democrat.)

Each of the polls has a place for comments, but there’s a very active discussion form toward the bottom of the page. There I found discussions on various races, propositions, and campaign-related events (like debates.) These forums were very busy: the forum on candidate for governor had 1,924 comments/posts.

If you want to discuss very local elections, this is great, but it lacks a bit of data. Since it is hyperlocal, I suppose Topix assumes that you’re familiar with the candidates. Looking at the candidates on 90210, I had no idea who Chelene Nightingale was, despite the fact that she was doing so well in the poll. I had to look her up. It would be good if Topix linked to the official candidate Web site, or maybe local news stories or Wikipedia.

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