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Capitol Hill's Dec. 7 Hackathon Means Government's Getting Geekier

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Monday, November 28 2011

Photo: Elliott P. / Flickr

Both President Obama and several Tea-party backed members of Congress swept into Washington in recent years by making dramatic promises to fundamentally change the way the town works. But in terms of transparency, accessibility and sunshine, it turns out that it’s the people quietly toiling behind the scenes who are the most likely to turn Washington inside out, one semantic tag at a time.

For years, coders and activists across the country have been turning the goings-on around Capitol Hill into machine-readable data feeds, from information on bills and legislators to an API for hand-collected information about political fund-raising events. Despite this, the people who run the Hill itself have been more likely to swim against this current than with it — until this session of Congress, which began with a promise to use technology for openness and transparency and has so far appeared to follow through, in many respects.

Software developers, Capitol Hill staffers and transparency advocates will brainstorm about what's to come in this field at Congress’ first hackathon on Dec. 7 at the Capitol Visitors Center. The event was conceived of and planned by Matt Lira, digital director for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), and his Democratic colleague Steve Dwyer, director of online communications and technology for House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer.

“We’re at one of those generational moments with the unique ability to change how things operate, and the things we create today will set new standards that will last for years and decades,” Lira says. “It ranges from the very mundane things to the headline-grabbing stuff.”

But, he adds, the potential and scale of all of the changes could be huge in their impact.

Lira says that the hackathon will focus on four main areas of discussion: constituent correspondence; legislative workflow (floor operations and committee meetings and how they’re structured;) press and public relations; and constituent services casework.

The idea of the hackathon is to brief attendees on these key processes, as well as the progress that has been made on some projects, like updates to the House’s legislative data feed. Then, the group of 150 plus participants will break up into smaller groups that will be tasked with discussing subject areas in which they’re interested. At the end of it all, they’ll have a “show and tell” session to air the ideas and challenges each group has come up with.

Also up for discussion: what House rules might need changing to enable some of the suggestions.

The House leaders are operating in fertile territory. Washington D.C. is now an outpost of Silicon Valley, with well-staffed offices of industry giants and a bustling start-up sector to boot. Smaller companies like PopVox and iConstituent will be at the hackathon, but at least one big name will, too: Facebook representatives will be at the event explaining their open graph protocol. Lira sees potential in Facebook's new system as a way to engage more people about issues that are important to them.

“People care passionately about ideas and want to do something about theirs,” Lira says. “The ability to share those ideas with friends and neighbors and acquaintances, I think, is extremely valuable, but we’re still on the frontier, and it’s very exciting to consider what’s possible.”

The promise Lira sees here is fueled by some of the same ideas — he's a close reader of Internet thinker and writer Clay Shirky — that inspired a tool called American Job Creators, which House Republicans are now using to collect first-person testimonials relating to the current state of business regulation in this country. Somewhere out there, beyond the swampland of Washington, D.C., is insight from interested, presumably Facebook-using citizens that could be put to less partisan policy purposes — if only Hill staffers could draw those folks into a conversation. Or so the thinking goes.

“Take the healthcare bill, for example, you’ve got millions of doctors, nurses, patients in the country who probably have first-hand knowledge of certain problems,” Lira says. “If there were a way for them to get substantively involved, they would probably do so.”

Perhaps Facebook’s open graph protocol could be used to build discussions between these communities of experts around the issues brought up by the legislation, he says.

Facebook and Hill staffers are coming to a party started years ago by transparency advocates like Joshua Tauberer, who founded and maintains — the site that serves, for the moment, as the fountain of all legislative data for a host of other projects. The House has yet to produce official feeds that could match what Tauberer offers — but has promised standardized legislative data before the end of this Congress.

In the meantime, every time the composition of a committee changes, or there’s any other change in Congress relevant to the lawmaking process, it’s up to someone at GovTrack to manually monitor and update their database. The result, Tauberer says, is that much of its information can be severely outdated. He recently received an e-mail, for example, reminding him that Anthony Weiner is no longer in office, and that he should be removed from committee assignments in the database.

Even with this handicap, new things are possible: Privacy advocate Shaun Dakin, for example, recently used PopVox to stir up conversation about a bill introduced in late September that would allow automated calls to mobile phones — and the platform now hosts 9,740 comments both for and against the legislation. PopVox then both geographically mapped and listed where all the support and opposition was coming from, as well as the various institutional groups that favored and opposed the legislation — all information that’s vital to Hill staffers working on legislation. They're just one start-up in a growing field that could grow larger with the right support from the Hill.

“I think only developers and transparency advocates will understand this, but my personal opinion is that the creation of standardized data is the most important structural change to Congress’ institutional operations since the addition of cameras to the House floor decades ago,” Lira says. “It is, in my mind an increase in transparency that is equally permanent that will outlast any personalities and will continue into the future as a standard.”

So the tools at present-day hackers' disposal are perhaps not as sharp as they might soon be, but demand for new ways of constituent communication has been consistent and growing. As far back as 2008, the Congressional Management Foundation, for example, issued a comprehensive report with specific advice on how to better organize Congress’ communications with advocacy groups and constituents as the volume of communications exploded with the rise of grassroots campaigns turbocharged with automation. One of the key recommendations even back then for members of Congress was to create a “communications dashboard” that could help them to mange and aggregate their communications over specific issues, and for topics under examination to be tagged with “issue codes” much like Flickr allows people to tag photos with key words.

For his part, the 29-year-old Lira acknowledges that grand dreams of hacking Congress and reinventing its processes and procedures to be more inclusive and accessible to the average American is going to take time.

“It’s not that there’s going to be this one day, and wisdom will come down from the mountains,” he said, laughing. “But every time I talk to a developer, or a start-up guy, or an advocate, there’s all this positive energy. All we need to do on an institutional side of things is open the door and let people start working on problems together, and build things that I can’t even anticipate or dream about, but that will be positive.”