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Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
 

An improved General Assembly website gives Pennsylvanians better access to information about legislation and lawmakers, opening the Capitol to higher levels of digital transparency.

The redesigned site prominently showcases information about legislators, how they voted and how to contact them, with easy-to-use search features.

James Turk, a developer with open-government advocacy group the Sunlight Foundation, said websites, email and text messages expanded ways for people to interact with the government.

Pennsylvania's redesign is another step forward, he said.

Last year, the General Assembly website registered 7.7 million page views and 774,349 unique visitors; this year, it attracted 8.8 million views through October.

“The website is really the only way most of the citizens are going to interact with the Legislature,” Turk said.

Something as simple as looking up legislators can be difficult on some states' websites, he said. Pennsylvania's site has a field for users to plug in their home address to find out who represents them.

Previously, a user had to know a bill number to look it up. Now, the field lets users search by keyword; results come up in the order of most hits.

A report card from the Open States project of the Sunlight Foundation graded the site with a “C” this year. It was considered timely and easy to access, with extra points for bill archives dating to 1969.

That information hasn't changed, but Turk said the updated site looks more modern, which could entice residents to check it out.

“Even when you're just changing style around, I think that can be of some use,” he said. “People are used to the Internet looking a certain way.”

Sticking with Web trends such as a “Popular Pages” tab, the site displays the Twitter feed for the Legislature's official notification account and links to lawmakers' social media sites on the contact page.

Erik Arneson, chief of staff for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware County, said planning for website changes began in January 2012 by soliciting public input.

“They wanted it to be easier to share what they thought was interesting or newsworthy,” Arneson said.

The last major overhaul of the website was in 2003. Upgrades are handled by the Legislative Data Processing Center, funded at about $3.9 million this year under the direction of a legislative committee chaired by Pileggi. The center provides payroll and computer services for the General Assembly,and maintains systems related to drafting legislation.

Turk said the site could improve by allowing “bulk access,” a way to collect reams of specific information from the site in a single search that can be used to establish mobile apps or programs highlighting specific data sets or trends.

Bulk data is useful for developers such as those at the Sunlight Foundation — or any interested citizen — who may want to create programs.

“The good news is, they just make the data available,” Turk said.

Arneson said bulk access is under consideration.

Melissa Daniels is a staff writerfor Trib Total Media.

Reach her at 412-380-8511 or mdaniels@tribweb.com.

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