Digital Democracy aims to revolutionize how we track Sacramento politicians

May 6, 2015

Students busy coding Digital Democracy in a basement under the Graphic Arts building on the Cal Poly campus.
Credit Brittany Graham

Scientists at Cal Poly will launch a free system Wednesday that could revolutionize the way Californians keep track of politicians in Sacramento. It's called Digital Democracy and it's something lawmakers haven't had to contend with—until now.

For the last several months, a team of developers have been meeting on Friday afternoons below the campus' graphic arts building in a basement space. There is clearly some high-tech development going on down in this room, which is out of sight to those who use the building daily. While the location may seem secretive, the product they're working on is anything but. 

The team has built a product that will shed sunlight on Sacramento's political process in an entirely new way. Former State Senator Sam Blakeslee and his Cal Poly Institute for Advanced Technology and Public Policy is creating the online transparency platform for the California Legislature with the help of a $1.2 million grant.

"This tool will allow individuals to—with a Google search like ability—find exactly all those moments when things are said about certain bills or certain issues and see who's saying what in committee, who's fighting for this amendment, who's trying to kill this type of reform, who is arguing for less spending, perhaps for K-12 education," said Blakeslee.

All of this is done using tools, including voice and face recognition, that scour thousands of hours of video captured in political meetings and hearings. What's created are accurate transcripts, a video database, speaker information and campaign data—all totally searchable.

"Right now there's almost no accountability with politicians, and having been one I can speak with some authority," said Blakeslee. "They come back to their district and take lots of meetings and give lots of speeches, but when you go and actually work in Sacramento, the only people who are there listening are lobbyists. There is no one from the public."

Dr. Foaad Khosmood and his team of students are hard at work making this platform more interesting and social media-friendly.

"We want to build a tool that gets people excited about it, and allows them to easily search for what they want, share what they want, and be on alert for the thing that they're interested in," said Khosmood.

While Digital Democracy will start with the California State Legislature, the technology has the potential to be used on the local level as well as in different states, and even federally.