Digital Democracy, a Cal Poly project, aims to open up government

Former state Sen. Sam Blakeslee, right, talks to software designers at Cal Poly, including software developer Justin Rovin, left.
Former state Sen. Sam Blakeslee, right, talks to software designers at Cal Poly, including software developer Justin Rovin, left. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

If you want to find out what how much donors are contributing to California politicians, and what lobbyists are saying at hearings, new technology is now available to dig up that information and more through a search engine designed by a Cal Poly team.

The Digital Democracy platform was coordinated under the guidance of former Sen. Sam Blakeslee and his Institute for Advanced Technology and Public Policy, which is housed at Cal Poly.

The program launched May 6 on the website www.digitaldemocracy.org with more than 45,500 page views so far.

The search engine was designed to make readily available information that otherwise might require hours of driving to a Sacramento hearing or sitting through live video streams.

“What might take 10 hours of research on what a politician said on a specific issue, you can now get in a matter of seconds by typing up the search term,” said Foaad Khosmood, a Cal Poly computer engineering professor who helped coordinate the project.

“If a politician is talking about vaccinations, for example, it will cue up everything that person said about that and provide the video of them saying it.”

The 20-member Cal Poly team, which includes computer science and political science faculty, now is monitoring the use of the search engine, looking to expand to other states and developing new tools for data mining.

They’re using face and voice recognition to identify speakers, including those who give public comment.

Cal Poly computer science graduate student Justin Rovin said that he has spent about 500 hours on the project in a paid position, and the experience has been invaluable training in web technology and web applications.

“I don’t know if I would have had this experience anywhere else,” Rovin said. “I feel very much a part of something with big goals. It has been like working for a startup.”

Cal Poly political science graduate Zachary Antoyan’s contributions to the project have included advising the computer science team about what information the public will be likely to seek and putting names to faces from comment at hearings.

“One of the interesting things about this program, too, is that if people find something amusing or interesting they can share it on social media,” Antoyan said. “It could go viral.”

Moving forward, the team hopes to better contextualize how political players, including lobbyists, and those who speak at hearings are influencing government.

Lobbyists seek to affect how politicians vote on a variety of issues, from budgetary spending to legislation that affects a variety of industries, through persuasion and by donating money to those in office.

Members of the public can sway votes by speaking out and voicing support or opposition at hearings and through petitions, among other avenues.

“It can mean somebody who identifies herself as a housewife may have worked for a company previously and if that person is speaking on that issue, it would be good to know her background,” Khosmood said.

“The more information we gather and accumulate, the better you can analyze data. One of the advantages Facebook and Google have is they’ve accumulated a ton of information.”

Using the Digital Democracy program, anyone who wishes to search for what Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian may have said about the drought at a state government hearing can use the search engine to pull up the video archive.

Those seeking to find out who has contributed money to state Sen. Bill Monning can pull up the record on donations.

Both local politicians are included in the comprehensive database of state politicians, speakers, bills and committee.

Blakeslee said he hopes the program will spread to all 50 states eventually and change how accessible government is to the public nationwide.

The future development of the program will depend on additional funding. The Institute raised $1.2 million to operate the project for one year.

“What you see a lot of is legislation that develops at the state level becomes a federal issue,” Blakeslee said. “If people have this resource throughout the country, it engages citizenship and facilitates democracy. We hope this will be the gold standard for open government.”