From introduction forward, you can track bills in the Washington state legislature online, and can even customize delivery to your inbox of legislative hearing videos by topic or bill number using the Scout tool of the state’s public affairs cable channel TVW. However campaign contribution data lives in another silo, and a gnarly one at that, kept by the state’s Public Disclosure Commission. Meanwhile, watching Washington state legislative committee hearing videos – unless you’re a political insider – it’s hard to really know who’s who, who’s giving money to who, why, and how myriad discreet actions align. 

Sam Blakeslee, Founder, Institute for Advanced Technology & Public Policy, Cal Poly SLO (above)

But now a public university institute in California is trying to address similar political information bottlenecks there – with what could one day be a revolutionary new tool adaptable to other states, counties and cities, called Digital Democracy.

Connecting The Dots 

The privately-funded Institute for Advanced Technology and Public Policy at California Polytechnic University in San Luis Obispo is moving into the proof-of-concept, beta testing phase of the tool, which would connect the dots in ways previously accessible only for experienced investigative reporters and high-level researchers, with time aplenty to spare.

Institute officials gave an initial presentation on the tool last week to state lawmakers and staff in Sacramento. According to the Institute’s project overview, the Digital Democracy open government initiative will include not only legislative hearing videos and video keyword search capabilities, but also profiles of the players, and campaign contribution data that can be dialed up by the user in connection with specific bills and legislative actions.

Unlocking Poltical ‘Insider’ Knowledge In New Ways 

Wrote institute founder and former state lawmaker Dr.Sam Blakeslee in an op-ed this week in the San Francisco Chronicle: “Digital Democracy…unlocks and makes accessible the discussions and interactions between lobbyists and legislators during committee hearings. It also highlights key campaign contribution data, allowing monetary exchanges to be tracked as legislation is crafted and voted on.”                                                     

A Range of Users Seen as Benefitting 

Campaign finance data will be integrated to Digital Democracy using the robust Maplight technology now already employed in California. The Institute believes several types of users would benefit: the general public, media, advocacy groups and non-profits, lawmakers and staff, and public policy researchers and scholars.

Full Build-out Depends on Future Funding 

After beta testing of Digital Democracy, additional funds would have to be raised for a full build-out and broad public availability. Whether that happens could depend in part on the reaction from beta testers.

The Institute has initiated several other projects in alternative energy and education, and engages faculty and students as participants to try to improve public policy outcomes.

Blakeslee serves as Digital Democracy Project Director; Co-Director of the project is Christine Robertson, former Chief of Staff in the California State Senate and Assembly. Digital Democracy collaborators include Cal Poly computer science faculty who are expert in artificial intelligence, knowledge-based systems, human-computer interactions, user-centered design, databases, data mining and bioinformatics; and political science faculty focusing on voting behavior and political participation.

Gavin Newsom Among Advisors 

Advisors to the Institute on this and other projects include former San Francisco Mayor and current California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, philanthropist Charles Munger, Maplight Founder and CEO Dan Newman, California Civic Innovation Project Director Alissa Black, and Dan Schnur, Director of the Jesse Unruh institute at USC.

You can request to be a beta tester of the Digital Democracy project here.


Coming to King County: The Next Generation of Open Data, Assessor Lloyd Hara, in Catalyst

Governance performance indicators for Washington state, Metrics Explorer, Washington Business Alliance