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Digital Democracy Brings Legislative Transparency to New York

Plans include expanding to Florida and Texas by early 2018.

Digital Democracy, a Web platform that creates a searchable archive of videos and transcripts from hearings inside of statehouses, launched in New York Tuesday, Feb. 6, and its leadership announced subsequent plans to make the resource available soon in Florida and Texas. 

Started as a bipartisan effort in 2015 to increase the transparency and accessibility of California’s state government, Digital Democracy is spearheaded by California’s Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) and former Sen. Sam Blakeslee (R). The platform is developed and maintained by a team of about 20 engineering and political science students at the Institute for Advanced Technology and Public Policy, which was founded by Blakeslee and is located at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. 

With Digital Democracy, anyone can search keywords, such as “education funding” or “climate change,” to find listings for hearings in which the words were used, complete with videos and transcripts of the moment they were discussed. Users can also set email alerts, edit videos and share them via email or social media. The transcripts created by the platform are a new data set previously unavailable to the public, complete with votes, speakers, positions registered and speaker affiliations.

Blakeslee told Government Technology that given the current political climate — in which President Donald Trump appears poised to shift decisions about medical care, immigration, climate change and public lands to the states — open state government has never been more important. 

“Virtually every major policy issue that affects our lives is rapidly devolving to state capitols,” Blakeslee said. “We need to have the tools to hold our elected representatives accountable as they make decisions on these weighty issues.”

Digital Democracy has already proven especially popular among journalists in California. Blakeslee pointed to an irony in which statehouse press corps were diminished when newspaper profit margins dropped due to technology, but now this new technology is poised to enable even small-town papers to cover state legislatures as if they had a capitol bureau.

In the spring, Blakeslee said Digital Democracy will be rolling out a feature called Mobilized, which will allow nonprofit organizations and advocacy groups to brand the content and embed it on their own sites. This way they can then curate video footage important to them and the causes or communities they serve.

This function is ideal, Blakeslee said, for groups that can’t afford high-priced lobbyists to push their priorities and keep pressure on legislatures, because they can now see what their representatives are saying and how they are saying it. They can, in other words, keep their elected officials accountable.

Lt. Gov. Newsom stressed the importance of open government in a statement. “Technology has transformed the way we engage with business and each other, but the government has been late to the party," he said in the statement. "We are conditioned by a world where tools are customized to our needs, and Digital Democracy is an important extension of that. By opening up statehouses to citizens, Digital Democracy is empowering advocates and individuals with modern organizing tools.”

It would, of course, be ideal to deploy the technology in all 50 statehouses, from Augusta, Maine, to Salem, Ore. As of today, though, it’s present in Sacramento, Calif., and Albany, N.Y., with plans for expanding to Austin, Texas, and Tallahassee, Fla., by this time next year. For a state to be eligible for the tech, it must have an existing video feed in its statehouse and a policy allowing public access to that video. As Digital Democracy is funded by donations, finances are also limiting. 

Labor and ideas, however, are not a problem. Andrew Voorhees, a senior at California Polytechnic State University, is the database lead for Digital Democracy, and he describes a vibrant atmosphere in which a rotation of new students every two years brings fresh faces and renewed vigor. The importance of the project has become evident to Voorhees as he’s worked on it.

“What we do that’s unique is we make it easier to search through and find state government information that people are looking for,” Voorhees said. “Sometimes we have trouble finding it ourselves.”

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.