Frank Huang / Mustang News

Digital Democracy, a Cal Poly-based open government project, begins its second legislative session with new tools and a third state to serve.

The project’s employees take videos of hearings and committees posted by the state government and automatically generate a searchable transcript, which students manually check for accuracy.

Anyone can search by bill, representative name or keyword and find the speech they were looking for.

Christine Robertson, associate director of the Institute of Advanced Technology and Public Policy (IATPP), described Digital Democracy as “a practical solution to a pervasive problem.” The IATPP is the parent institution of Digital Democracy. The database is intended as a way for citizens, journalists and advocacy groups  to hold representatives accountable.

The database uses technology that identifies speakers through a combination of text, video and facial recognition. It connects information from California websites to include 76 data tables connecting bill texts, bill analysis, transcripts,  lobbyists, staff gifts, campaign contributions, votes cast and hearings.

Every video can be clipped and shared on social media.

Moving up

Digital Democracy expanded to New York’s legislature in 2015, and is planning to create another open government database for Florida this year. According to software engineering senior Nick Russo, who is involved in the project, the Florida database has been filled, but they are having difficulty with inputting lobbyist information. They have 50,000 registered users.

The Cal Poly connection

Sam Blakeslee, former state senator and assemblyman, created Digital Democracy in 2014. It is one of three current initiatives IATPP is working on. The IATPP is tied with Cal Poly, has its offices in Warren J. Baker Center for Science and Mathematics, and was created by Blakeslee in 2012. While the staff focuses on the IATPP’s projects, its experts are professors at Cal Poly and the current employees are students.

Students are paid or receive senior project credit for their work. About 30 to 40 students work every year for the project, according to Robertson, with some working 40 hours per week over the summer.

Cal Poly computer science professors Alex Dekhtyar, Foaad Khosmood and Davide Falessi make up the advising team.

They currently have 52,239 bills, 22,019 speakers and 23,706 video segments available to search, according Dekhtyar.

New features

Version three of Digital Democracy brings an alignment meter, developed primarily by statistics senior Andrew Voorhees, which displays how much a representative tends to vote in favor of the same bills that an organization approves of.

Digital Democracy is also working on a partnership with Cal Matters, a non-profit news organization, to create news feeds based on each representative’s actions.

Digital Democracy is non-partisan, and makes their technology available to everyone.

The other programs started by the IATPP are CalWave, a proposed wave energy test center, and Connect Academy, a project that helps parents from non-English speaking households assist their children with English learning.

Correction: In a previous version of this article, it referenced California websites to include 76 data columns. It has been changed to say 76 data tables. 

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