Funding has been secured to fully develop a new searchable video and social engagement tool that will help journalists and citizens keep a watchful eye on California state government.
Digital Democracy, an online platform that enables users to research, view, clip and share video of the California Senate and Assembly committee hearings, has received a $1.2 million grant from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. Thanks to the philanthropic organization’s donation, the project is set to make its official debut in spring 2015.
A beta version of the next-generation video archival system was tested earlier this year by the Institute for Advanced Technology and Public Policy at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. The project is spearheaded by the institute’s founder, former California Sen. Sam Blakeslee.
In an interview with Government Technology, Blakeslee said Digital Democracy has a three-pronged goal: First is to give a shrinking press corps the ability to quickly and accurately obtain what really goes on in committee hearings. Second is to better empower the public to see what goes on in the legislative process and lastly, he wants searchable video to hold lawmakers accountable for the political deals they make on certain bills.
Regarding the accountability factor, Blakeslee recalled being frustrated during his time as a state lawmaker when he saw complex agreements made, only to be reneged later because they weren’t recorded.
“Time and again we’d see bills that had real problems in them slip out of committee with promises that certain commitments would be made to fix issues in those bills, but those commitments were never honored,” Blakeslee said. “And then when certain legislators would bring up that those commitments were made, the author or chair of the committee would feign a lack of recollection.”
Through a “Google-like” search interface, a Digital Democracy user goes to the site, types in a term, and associated video clips are returned for viewing that particular subject. People will also be able to set search terms on the site and have links to relevant clips sent to them automatically.
The link distribution could initially take up to 72 hours, but through new voice recognition technology and artificial intelligence testing, the time should be reduced to within 24 hours by the end of 2015. The raw video footage is provided by The California Channel.
Digital Democracy may have the potential to help keep lawmakers more honest, but the project still has a number of challenges to overcome. Initially Blakeslee was concerned with users “drowning in irrelevant content,” by getting search results that had the requested term, but not the right context.
The first solution was to design a system of symbols in the vein of Facebook’s “thumbs-up” icon to enable someone to convey whether a particular search result was useful. This way, when someone types in the same search parameters in the future, they’ll have a better idea about what clips they should check out first. A person could “vote-up” or “vote-down” a particular clip – called an “utterance” and post a comment about it.
But Blakeslee told Government Technology that his development team has decided to temporarily table the idea. He explained that there was a lot of feedback that putting a rating system into the tool early-on could produce opportunities for bias.
“Certain groups or organizations could flood the site and essentially create a skewed assessment of what these utterances meant,” Blakeslee said.
The alternative strategy for stimulating the same level of user engagement is a feature Blakeslee described as “trusted commentators.” There will be a group of high-level people using the tool to highlight what they believe are the best and worst of the issues being discussed by legislators. The group will be comprised of six to 12 people across the political spectrum, from both sides of the aisle. It’ll also include members of the business community, academia and other areas.
The group will directly cite and quote utterances from state legislators on particular topics and bills being discussed in Sacramento. But they also will be encouraged to engage in debates with one another, using the utterances they have selected from committee hearings. The hope is also to drive people to the site to understand what’s happening inside the state capitol.
“We are going to identify people who are willing to use the tool to not only make their arguments with primary source material, namely the utterances of elected officials, but who also will use the tool to show the power of technology to open doors into the [California] Legislature,” Blakeslee said.
Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.