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Attention, State Government Watchdogs: You Might Need This

A new search engine called Digital Democracy can comb through videos, transcripts, and records of what goes on in America’s statehouses.

New York state senators on the opening day of the legislative session. (Hans Pennink/AP)

Julie Griffiths, the executive director of the the nonprofit Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, wanted to keep tabs on California’s American Disabilities Act compliance laws. But tracking what lawmakers were saying in the statehouse used to be a massive undertaking. She spent untold hours recording the live broadcast from California’s public access channel devoted to legislative hearings. “You had to sit there and videotape Cal access channels, or you had to order the videotape, which could take forever,” she says. Hours of methodical fast-forwarding and rewinding followed. “It was hard to get that information of what somebody actually said.”

Now, all it takes are a few clicks and keyword searches.

These are busy times for government watchdogs, journalists, and those at advocacy organizations: Keeping up with the Trump-powered news cycle is hard enough—try keeping up with a state legislature. “We have literally thousands of bills each year that go through scores of committees,” says former California state senator Sam Blakeslee, who is now the founding director of the Institute for Advanced Technology and Public Policy at the Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo. “And there are no minutes, no transcripts, no lists of speakers, no recordation of the debate in terms of major points of contention.”

Some of this kind of information is recorded, but little is released in a timely manner or can be easily accessed by the public. Blakeslee aims to change that with Digital Democracy, an online tool that archives every state hearing in California—and now, New York—since 2015 through videos, transcripts, and records of who said what. The tool also keeps track of elected officials and their financial ties to lobbyists and big corporations—all searchable by name, issue, bill number, etc. Think of it as Google for state government.

Digital Democracy is powered by a mix of artificial intelligence and an army of political and computer science students. The machine first combs through government databases and feeds for new videos of senate hearings. Then it transcribes them, using facial and voice recognition to figure out who is speaking. (The videos are open to the public, but Blakeslee says they’re scattered across arcane databases meant for “insiders.”) Then students review the transcript and video to ensure that speakers are identified correctly and research each person’s background—who the lobbyists represent, for example, or what financial contributions lawmakers have received and what bills legislators have authored.

First launched in 2015 in California with cofounder and California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, the tool is now being taken across the country to New York via a partnership with NAACP. Digital Democracy now has information on some 15,000 individuals involved in policymaking in those two states. Eventually, Florida and Texas will get their own platforms, expanding Digital Democracy’s reach to roughly a third of all U.S. citizens.

“The biggest policy issues are debated in those [four] statehouses, which have consequences to the entire nation,” Blakeslee says. “That's never been more true today than with Donald Trump's administration, which said quite directly that they plan on moving health care decisions down to the state, and on not following through on Obama's vision for climate change.”

How cities tackle infrastructure and immigration issues will depend on state policies, too. In a recent Atlantic article on the tension between left-leaning cities and their right-leaning states, David Graham points to an oft-overlooked problem for liberal advocates: “Power may be decentralized in the American system, but it devolves to the state, not the city.”

Yet the pertinent information needed to advocate for policy reform in states can be difficult for Digital Democracy’s main users—grassroots organizations and local journalists—to obtain with scarce resources. “You gets lots of lobbyists that will talk to different legislatures, and sometimes it will be the same person but they'll be representing different organizations,” says Cal Poly student Kyle Libby, who is working on the project. “It can be a quick Google search, or you may have to go through the organization's records to try to find them.”

Open government advocates have long warned about the inefficiency of these kinds of “data dumps,” saying they don’t go far enough to ensure transparency. But Blakeslee says that they’re adding more feature to make the site more user-friendly; already, they’ve added an alert system that notifies users when a speaker mentions keywords related to their cause or to a specific bill. And they’re working on turning the platform into force for online advocacy—essentially enabling users to not just look up information but share snippets of the video or of the transcript on their own websites or on social media.

“We have the ability to fight fake news by giving advocates access to their own hard truth of primary source material that they can then share with their communities,” says Blakeslee. “It’s what turns an exploration tool into a mobilization tool.”

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