BY: ELIJAH BASSETT
If the workings of your own government seem distant and obscure to you, you’re not alone. But if you’re living in California or New York, a new accountability platform called Digital Democracy wants to enlighten you about what goes on in your state legislature.
The site lets you watch full hearings and uses artificial intelligence to create transcripts of everything that’s said during the meetings. Its search function also lets you look up speakers, organizations, bills, hearings, and committees. The information is organized to let you find out key points of what politicians are up to, including histories of donations and gifts from organizations to lawmakers.
It was started by former California senator Sam Blakeslee, along with students from California Polytechnic University, as a response to the lack of transparency in local government, and this transparency will be more important now than ever. As Wired points out, Trump’s plans to roll back federal legislation in a wide range of contexts will put the onus on state legislatures to decide what they want to do about the situations covered by these former laws. According to Blakeslee, “this is a perfect moment if you want to make a difference to engage in the politics in your state.”
In fact, it’s not activists, but journalists who are making the most use of the platform, because of its database-like presentation – not to mention the dryness of the content. Even its co-founder Gavin Newsom, also lieutenant governor of California, calls it a “data-dump,” so it will mostly appeal to people who are already politically engaged. Still, we can hope that that audience grows, especially given many Americans’ shaken trust in politicians, government, and more mediated forms of information like social media.
Since this platform doesn’t offer any commentary on the data it presents, it puts the power of interpretation in the hands of the readers, which could be powerful in a media environment where people are worried about being led astray by misinformation and other people’s agendas.
According to Wired, California Polytechnic students are also working on a way to run their transcripts through a tool called ClaimBuster, which detects statements of fact, and then send these claims to Politifact to be fact-checked. This will further strengthen the government transparency that the site strives for, making it a valuable tool for the engaged citizen.
Digital Democracy is also planning on expanding to Florida and Texas in the near future.