California Launches Digital Democracy Project

Blakeslee Press Conference

Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom and former state Senator Sam Blakeslee in California have launched Digital Democracy, a new online and interactive platform aimed at improving transparency in state government. The platform was developed in conjunction with computer science students at Cal Poly, and will use new research in artificial intelligence as well as big data, text and video to provide a view into the state legislature.

Despite a wave of municipal open data and transparency efforts throughout California, the state overall received and “F” grade for government transparency from the the California Public Interest Research Group Education Fund. The platform which hopes to change all that was developed at the Institute for Advanced Technology and Public Policy (IATPP) at California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly).

Digital Democracy uses voice and facial recognition, data mining and natural language processing to offer Californians access to state legislative hearings with a Google-like search, and allows users to identify key capitol players and their connections to campaigns, interest groups, and other legislative actions.

“We developed Digital Democracy to open up government,” said Sam Blakeslee, IATPP’s founding director and a former state senator in an interview with CivSource. “The California state legislature does not produce transcripts or minutes from these hearings. We will provide video, as well as text transcripts of those meetings and we will also be pulling from other public datasets to include lobbyist information and information about gifts given to legislators.”

A bipartisan poll released last week from IATPP shows overwhelming support for requiring all state documents, including the budget, to be available online with a search engine similar to Google. The survey also found that nearly all Californians want public hearings in the legislature to be captured by video and made available to the public on the Internet within 24 hours after the hearing. So far, the early stage platform can turnaround recordings in approximately ten days, but Blakeslee says they are now in the beta phase and will be working with users and developers to make turnaround faster. “We want to be able to produce something that is of high quality. We hope to bring it down to around three days before the end of the year.”

The project is funded by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation and the Rita Allen Foundation. The first grant period will end in September, but student developers working on the project are confident that the platform will continue to expand.

“I’m a graduate student here,” Justin Roven tells CivSource. “One of our professors presented about the project to our class and the project really resonated for me. I always thought that being someone growing up with the internet, and growing up with tech, it was so weird and such a shame that this was lacking so much in the government. So I applied to work on the project right away, and I will be writing my thesis on it as well.”

“I think the potential for the work we are doing with the data and natural language processing is enormous in terms of what we can do for the project and the ways in which we can use what we learn to expand into other applications.”

“We want to create functionality that hasn’t been developed before,” Blakeslee added.