How do I create an open-source website?
August 4, 2008 1:55 AM   Subscribe

My friend wants to create a website that promotes political awareness by tracking congressional legislation, letting users discuss and vote on bills, and monitoring the votes of their politicians. Does a website like this already exist, and if not, how do we launch it as open source, but keep the user data (e.g. login information, profiles) private, like LiveJournal, SourceForge, Connotea, Reddit, and Wikipedia?

A friend of mine approached me with an idea for a nonprofit cause-oriented website. I'm trying to figure out how to help him get it launched. He's not a programmer; I am, but my specific web dev experience is very limited.

The idea is to have the website take data on congressional legislation from, and let users of the website vote on and debate legislation. There are other features, all aimed at galvanizing voters into being more aware of what's going on in Congress. Does a website like this already exist? If it doesn't, my friend is interested in launching one like it.

My friend wants to make the site as transparent and open as possible, and also wants to get help from interested volunteers in building it. So, we decided we'd look into open-sourcing it. However, even if the codebase is open source, this website would have user account data that would need to be kept private, much like LiveJournal, Reddit, and Wikipedia. I have a few questions:

(1) How complicated does this sound?
(2) Is there a guide somewhere on how to create a website like this?

(Note: I asked a related question a while back -- this was the closest answer I got, but I'm looking for more specific details.

Side question: I agreed to provide my friend general guidance, but I do not have the web dev expertise to carry this through. I am trying to find my friend competent web developers who are interested in volunteering for this. Any ideas on where to look? I have thought of,, MeFi Projects; what am I missing? I figure there would need to be a super-dedicated "head developer" who sets up the database and infrastructure, to allow other people to contribute. I know it's naive to think that someone willing to volunteer their time like this necessarily exists, but if they did, where would I find them?
posted by lunchbox to Computers & Internet (7 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: you know about open congress, right?
posted by sergeant sandwich at 1:56 AM on August 4, 2008

They're UK based, but this is pretty much what My Society do for British politics. I think they'd have strong links with technical people in the US who might want to do something like this.
posted by Happy Dave at 2:21 AM on August 4, 2008

Best answer: You use a database, publish the source code online under an open source license but keep the database private, publishing the source on somewhere like Google Code or Sourceforge and providing easy installation instructions. Don't expect people to just work on it for free - generally people will work on your code to scratch and itch or to reuse the source themselves. Certainly don't expect contributions from day 1. Of the sites you list above, both Reddit and Wikipedia (in Mediawiki) are open source, so this is considered quite a normal thing.

In my eyes convincing a developer to do this for free will be disproportionately difficult - there's an "ideas are cheap" meme among the development community and the idea that "all we need is a programmer" when their idea is development-centric typically causes many developers to roll their eyes having heard that a bit too often from non-technical people such as business schools students. A better idea would be to get your hands dirty yourself.

This all sounds like reasonably standard web development stuff. Do some reading and get a few good books on the technologies involved - HTML, CSS and JavaScript for the front-end and a server scripting language (e.g. PHP, ASP.NET or Ruby on Rails in order of popularity) and databases (SQL) for the backend. It might be worth adapting a similar open source project rather than writing from scratch but I can't suggest anything off-hand.
posted by HaloMan at 3:05 AM on August 4, 2008

In addition to opencongress listed above, and

Between those three and the US government's own Tommy , I go there to look at the roll calls and background info for any legislation in the news.
posted by fizzix at 6:05 AM on August 4, 2008

Those sites have the capabilities that your friend is looking for, I'd recommend them to contribute to those instead of reinventing the wheel.
posted by fizzix at 6:07 AM on August 4, 2008

I sometimes use Again it's UK Filter, but it's a nice idea that works well; so worth your friend checking out, I would think.
posted by munchbunch at 7:20 AM on August 4, 2008

Open Congress sounds close to what you want. Another similar project,, is being developed as an open-source project. I'm sure they'd love for you friend to pitch in.
posted by PueExMachina at 9:04 PM on August 4, 2008

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