Daniel Schwen

Holding politicians accountable to literally every word they say.

In a world of social media users sharing fake news and articles they haven’t read—and a president who hates the media—it can pay to go directly to the source. By providing a digital archive of “all statements made in state legislative hearings,” Digital Democracy allows people to do just that.

The organization provides both videos and transcripts of the hearings?—?all on a completely searchable platform. “These data rich transcripts represent an entirely new universe of information previously unavailable to the public,” according to Digital Democracy.

Right now, transcripts are available only for state legislatures in California (since 2015) and, as of February 6, 2017, New York. The information exists thanks to video of the sessions and artificial intelligence: Computers transcribe the hearings?—?people check them before they’re posted?—?and facial recognition software figures out who said what.

The resulting transcripts are completely searchable. Enter “mixed martial arts,” for instance, and you’ll get a trove of videos of legislators discussing the legalization of MMA in New York:

Digital Democracy

Click on a video, and you’re brought to the exact moment when a legislator said something matching the search term. Or click on a section in the transcript to move to that moment in the video. Search results can be filtered by who’s speaking, hearing location, date, bill type and bill number.

Digital Democracy also provides information about the people speaking. Profiles include biographies, links to transcripts and videos of their testimonies, committee membership, links to bills they’ve authored and political contributions.

Digital Democracy

The nonprofit project, launched by California lieutenant governor Gavin Newsom and former California state senator Sam Blakeslee, is the work of students at the Institute for Advanced Technology and Public Policy at California Polytechnic University (Blakeslee founded the institute).

Aside from bringing the platform to more states?—?Texas and Florida are next?—?Digital Democracy also plans to broaden the service’s capabilities. Soon, transcripts will be run through Claimbuster, an artificial intelligence-based service that can identify when someone is stating something as fact; those statements will then be checked with Politifact.

No matter how accessible, nor how easily shared on social media, the data provided by Digital Democracy is just that: data. But an astounding amount of data can reveal an astounding amount?—?at least when given context and treated with the kind of critical thinking that makes Donald Trump so afraid of the media.