California Open Government Search Engine Adds More Features

The online platform Digital Democracy provides remote access to hearings and information related to the state's politics.

by Nick Wilson, The Tribune (San Luis Obispo, Calif.) / March 31, 2016
Screenshot taken from DigitalDemocracy.org

(TNS) — Digital Democracy, an online platform that offers remote access to hearings and information related to California politics, has added some key new features to keep users up-to-date and informed.

The searchable online database uses voice and facial recognition to identify speakers, including those who give public comment at state legislative hearings.

The new features, effective Monday, enable users to receive email alerts and access custom video storing and editing capabilities, among other tools.

Launched last May, Digital Democracy was created by former Sen. Sam Blakeslee and his Institute for Advanced Technology and Public Policy, which is housed at Cal Poly and works in conjunction with the university. The institute receives no state funding.

“Debates and decisions can happen fast in Sacramento,” said Christine Robertson, the institute’s associate director. “Our users requested email alerts so they can stay on top of their issues, and then use the video clipping and sharing features to inform and mobilize their networks to act.”

A 20-member Cal Poly team comprised of computer science and political science students and faculty built the Digital Democracy program.

“Politicians have long hidden in the shadows and it can be difficult to know what politicians do in Sacramento and Washington,” Blakeslee said in a phone interview on Wednesday. “Now, we’re on the cusp of an accountability and transparency revolution driven by technology.”

Digital Democracy transcribes all legislative videos recording by CalChannel, a network that offers live footage of full proceedings of the California Legislature. Those transcriptions are available to Digital Democracy users in their entirety, so people can pull testimony on demand relating to bills on topics such as water conservation or vaccinations.

Digital Democracy helps open the doors to the Capitol to our members across California.

Bismarck Obando, director of public affairs for the League of California Cities

The new features include search capabilities for all floor sessions, where bills are debated by the entire Senate and Assembly after legislation has passed specific policy committees.

The email alert system enables users to access information by keywords, phrases, bills, and speakers they want to follow. A new custom video function allows people to save clips of videos on their personal Digital Democracy accounts and share them on social media or embed them in a newsletter. And users can review testimony offered by representatives of an interest group on the platform’s new “organization profile page” which gathers a collection of videos displaying the testimony of those talking on behalf of interest groups and their position on the legislation.

Blakeslee said that journalists have found the program particularly useful for finding politicians’ statements during hearings, as well as advocates for causes who may not be able to afford a trip to Sacramento.

Robertson said that users hundreds of miles away from Sacramento are among those who spend the most time on the site.

“Digital Democracy helps open the doors to the Capitol to our members across California,” said Bismarck Obando, director of public affairs for the League of California Cities, in a statement. “By being able to track the policy dialogue in Sacramento, the public — and our members — have more opportunity to engage and make their voices heard by their elected representatives.”

©2016 The Tribune (San Luis Obispo, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.