A new online tool that combines video archiving with social engagement could usher in a new era of legislative transparency in California.
Called “Digital Democracy,” the database identifies specific segments of footage from all California Senate and Assembly committee and floor hearings based on keywords. Spearheaded by former state Sen. Sam Blakeslee, the platform allows users to re-post those video clips on social media networks and rate the usefulness of each segment for the particular search criteria they used.
Archiving video and making it searchable obviously isn’t new – The California Channel live-streams many committee meetings and has its own database for people to use. When someone types in a keyword, the site's archive returns a list of videos arranged by bill number and a description of what the bill is. People can also obtain hearings from the state on DVD.
But Digital Democracy takes archiving a step further by creating a searchable transcription of everything that was said about a topic during a committee meeting or hearing. For example, if a person types in “renewable energy,” the results show up in the form of “utterances” – video clips – directly related to the search term parameters. So every time a lawmaker says that term, it pops up as a clip.
In an interview with Government Technology, Blakeslee said the idea for Digital Democracy stemmed from a need to recall the mountain of bills and amendment discussions he was involved in during his eight years as a state senator. He noted that it was frustrating at times to discuss and ultimately vote on bills without any type of archive or transcription to remember who agreed to what during the course of negotiations.
Blakeslee added that one of the goals of the project is to make researching a legislative topic more of a Google-like “organic process,” which empowers a user to explore nimbly.
“One search will lead you to another, and there’s this sort of exploration process,” Blakeslee said. “[It’s] opening up government to the point that you can immerse yourself in a space where you can understand what’s happening, as opposed to just getting a DVD and sitting through two hours of testimony.”
California could use the help with regard to improving its legislative accountability and transparency. The Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit organization that advocates for open government, gave California a “D” grade on its 2013 Transparency Report Card.
The report judges legislative websites in relation to how government information is publicly available. Six criteria are evaluated in establishing the overall letter grade. Those factors include completeness, timeliness, ease of electronic access, machine readability, use of commonly owned standards and permanence.
While Digital Democracy wouldn’t be an official site of the state, it would give journalists and watchdogs another way to keep tabs on what’s happening in the state’s legislation committee meetings.
Rebecca Williams, a policy analyst for the Sunlight Foundation, told Government Technology in an email that she felt the project was encouraging, although she’d like to see the log-in requirement removed in the final version of the platform.
“This site is a great example of the kind of comprehensive democracy tools can be built with open structured government data,” Williams said. “I'd love to see more states provide legislative information in structured ways so sites like these were easier to build.”
One of the project’s major challenges is to keep someone from “drowning in irrelevant content,” according to Blakeslee. As a result, Digital Democracy is being designed so that users will be able to rate and rank the utterances they view.
The development team is working on 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.
With user engagement high on the priority list, Digital Democracy could develop as more of a community, which is exactly what Blakeslee is hoping for.
“We want this to open up government in a way that kind of re-distributes power back into the hands of the public,” Blakeslee said. “And right now, all the power is in the hands of a very small clique of insiders, including legislators and lobbyists in Sacramento.”
Another hurdle Digital Democracy must overcome is funding. Right now, the platform is in a beta testing phase, populated with only California state budget hearings and information. Blakeslee revealed that his team is looking to secure funding from a foundation or a nonprofit organization to expand Digital Democracy and ultimately see it cover all legislative committees.
If the funding issues are addressed in a timely manner, Blakeslee expects the platform to be online and up-to-speed by July 2015.
Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.