Professor Foaad Khosmood (left) runs weekly Digital Democracy meetings for programmers and other technical staff. | Joseph Pack/Mustang News

Lindsy Mobley
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A $1.2 million grant is helping former state senator and assemblyman Sam Blakeslee and his Cal Poly team to enhance voters’ access to government meetings.

Blakeslee is the founding director of the Institute of Advanced Technology and Public Policy (IATPP), a non-profit institute associated with Cal Poly that uses advanced technology to improve California state legislature. As of now, it is currently active in the energy, education and open government areas, but it hopes to expand later on, he said.

“I served in the legislature in Sacramento for almost a decade,” Blakeslee said. “And upon my departure it became clear to me that there was still a real need for better public policy in California. And given the extraordinary skills and resources that are available in Cal Poly, it occurred to me that this would be the right place to establish a public policy institute.”

IATPP has now been running for two years and has three funded projects. The organization’s “Digital Democracy” project recently received a $1.2 million grant from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, he said.

Blakeslee observed that for all the hours and hours of legislative hearings in Sacramento, minutes were never recorded. So unless average citizens wanted to search through hours upon hours of video, there were no means of knowing what was said in these hearings.

“And this is really important information because it tells you really how your government is doing its job. So, Digital Democracy is creating a searchable database of all these hearings,” Blakeslee said.

Digital Democracy allows anyone to cut clips, post them to social media and raise awareness on legislative topics. It’s essentially an “opening of government,” he said.

Computer science assistant professor Foaad Khosmood is the institute’s senior research fellow. He oversees all hands-on work by students and faculty members working on Digital Democracy and is one of the program’s biggest proponents.

“You can (also) set up complex relationships between what’s being said and the actions that are happening. So you can paint a more interesting picture about just the works of the California government in general,” Khosmood said.

The Arnold Foundation was interested in government transparencies and took a particular liking to Cal Poly’s project because it was already being implemented, Khosmood said.

“We had this proof of concept system built for them to see,” he said. “So they saw that it worked, they actually interacted with it, they said they were very impressed and they would like to be a part of the future with it. So they provided the grant and from that we are now going to make a public version so, you know, everybody can benefit from it.”

Nearly all of the grant is being used to pay for Cal Poly personnel to fulfill the work. Some money is for convening, traveling and getting supplies, but most of it is for paying students, faculty and other staff, Blakeslee said.

Cal Poly students play a huge role in the institute, especially with the Digital Democracy project. Twenty undergraduate and masters level students alike have come together from the computer science department in the College of Engineering and the political science department in the College of Liberal Arts.

“The fact that we’re getting programmers together with students who love political science is something that we believe is a strength of our approach because it allows us to create multidisciplinary interactions where they might not otherwise occur,” he said.

The computer science students are involved in the programming, coding and quality control of the user interface, the constructing of databases, in handling artificial intelligence and in natural language processing, he said.

“And on the liberal arts side, they’re very involved in understanding politics in Sacramento, sitting down and helping with quality control, helping with the translation or transition from the video to the written word, identification of who speakers are, if they’re politicians, if they’re lobbyists, if they work for a state agency, creating a big database categorizing who these players are. So students are deeply involved in a whole range of activities,” Blakeslee said.

Anyone with a technical role in Digital Democracy’s operation is a Cal Poly student or faculty member, Khosmood said. Advisors in leadership positions, including California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom and deep-pocketed political reform activist Charles T. Munger Jr., do not necessarily have connections to Cal Poly.

Turning a raw video file into a polished, accurately tagged, searchable clip can take a long time and may discourage users. The turn-around time is one of the biggest technical challenges with Digital Democracy, according to Blakeslee.

“We’re looking at this next year; we’ll be working on the committee hearings as they’re occurring. So the database we’re creating will be completely new and current, and no one has ever seen this. It will be brand new,” Blakeslee said. “There will be some delay of when the words are spoken and when someone can search words, but we’re hoping it will be measured in days in the initial phase and then ultimately more like in hours.”

They expect to bring it down to 24 hours as artificial intelligence and facial and voice recognition improves, he said.

Blakeslee was troubled to see the amount of times legislatures would say one thing at, for example, their rotary club, and then say or do the exact opposite in the Sacramento committee hearings.

“So this open government tool is a powerful way to hold your elected officials accountable and to know and see exactly what it is that’s happening in the course of legislation becoming law,” he said.

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