A naive and idealistic man is appointed to fill a vacancy in the U.S. Senate. His plans promptly collide with political corruption, but he doesn't back down in the classic Mr Smith Goes To Washington.
Legislation isn’t riveting. Nor easy to follow. Long debates and votes scheduled at varying times make government hard to follow. How can the public stay abreast of legislation on issues that matter to them with hundreds of hearings at thousands of locations?
Laws begin as ideas. A representative first sponsors a bill, which is then assigned to a committee for study. If released by the committee, the bill is put on a calendar to be voted on, debated, or amended. The process is complicated and often opaque. Public access to information on the process increases voter engagement but is hard to implement.
New technologies make it possible for even small city councils to record and share their deliberations. Sessions are recorded and shared online though free tools such as YouTube. Google Transcript uses speech recognition technology to automatically create a transcript of what's said in the recording. Captions are added to the videos along with time code information to synchronize the caption timing with the video.
The transcripts make the video searchable. Users can go direclty to the part of the proceedings that interests them by entering a keyword or phrase such as “zoning”. Alerts can also be set up to alert them when the issue that they care about is being discussed. Imagine the joy of staying informed without having to watch entire city council meetings! Community engagement increases as concerned citizens and advocacy groups find the excerpts that matter the most, and share them on social media.
Open Media Project
The Open Media Project (OMP) is the latest endeavor of Denver-based nonprofit, the Open Media Foundation, which gives people power through media. This latest project is based on the premise that everyone deserves a democracy they can see. High costs and complexity have hindered projects for better government transparency and accessibility. OMP’s Software as a Service (SaaS) overcomes these challenges with YouTube’s free streaming and automated transcription service. It provides fully-searchable archives of government meetings that even small city agencies on tight budgets can use to better engage with their constituents.
OMP software is available from ompnetwork.org and is free of charge for governments serving populations under 5,000 people. It also shares content through the Internet Archive, a non-profit library of millions of free recordings and more.
“It’s an incredible resource for the people of Colorado, lowering the bar for civic engagement and enabling every resident of the state to be informed and engaged in the issues they care about,” said Andrew Romanoff. His vision as the Speaker of the Colorado State House of Representatives helped inspire this project. He now, as the CEO of a Colorado-based nonprofit and advocacy organization uses the tools to stay abreast of debate around mental health legislation at the capitol.
“New technology offers this level of transparency to even small governments,” said Brian Hiatt, lead developer on the Open Media Project. “Local government is where the public has the greatest opportunity to make an impact, and also where decisions are made that most impact their lives. Yet citizens report a lack of media coverage and exposure to local government that leaves them uninformed and disengaged. With searchable access to video of government meetings and email/text notifications for topics of interest, government can finally be accessible to the public without a trip to City Hall.”
Innovation in civic tech
Startups like OMP need support to flourish. This is where accelerators such as Fast Forward play a crucial role. They apply well-established Silicon Valley techniques to nonprofits and technology to solve social problems.
Fast Forward is based at the Tides Center in San Francisco. It accelerates tech nonprofits through funding, training and mentoring. Its accelerator program, has helped 23 tech nonprofits impact over 18.4M lives and raise $26M in follow-on funding in three years. Fast Forward hosts the Accelerate Good Global summit, maintains a directory of tech-based nonprofits and a tech-for-good job and volunteer board.
“I wouldn't give you two cents for all your fancy rules if, behind them, they didn't have a little bit of plain, ordinary, everyday kindness and a little lookin' out for the other fella too”, Mr. Smith exclaims in the movie. It's essential to keep the public informed.
OMP offers people visibility into law-making, helping democracy run better.