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This New Hack Keeps You Up to Date on House Floor Votes as if You Were There

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Thursday, July 25 2013

House votes are hard enough for members of Congress to follow, let alone the general public — but a new app proposes to make it easier for people to stay abreast of action on Capitol Hill no matter where they are.

Called "Capitol Bells," the new tool attracted attention on Reddit through an AMA session with its creator, 29-year-old mechanical engineer and former Hill staffer Ted Henderson.

Congress can be confusing even for veteran lawmakers. Rep. Mark Sanford (R-N.C.), returning to Congress this year after a long absence, was caught by surprise yesterday by a rescheduled vote on the Defense Department appropriations bill and appeared on the House floor in shorts and a borrowed blazer to cast his vote.

Maybe that's partially because of the systems used to keep denizens of the Hill abreast of the goings-on. Capitol Bells' name alludes to a system of ringing bells and flashing lights that go off throughout House office buildings to indicate when and what kind of vote is about to take place when the House floor is due for action. The Clerk of the House now also notifies members of votes through BlackBerry alerts.

Henderson, who worked as a staffer for former Rep. Dale Kildee (D-Mich.), has cobbled together a system that makes much of the U.S. Congress' House floor voting notification process accessible remotely via mobile phones and in near real-time. The app enables anyone with an iPhone to be notified when a vote is taking place, wherever they are, at the same time as staffers and lawmakers. An Android version is on the works, Henderson says. The former staffer says he released the first version of the app in April, and Wednesday's update enables users to "watch the progress of live votes, find all the bill details, plug into the social media discussion, and actually vote alongside your Representative on the app," he explains on his fundraising IndieGoGo page.

In other words, it's a much more mobile and interactive experience than watching the process being broadcast on C-Span on television.

In the future, Henderson hopes to build in functionality that will enable individuals to see how their Congressional representative is voting on a bill. With this release, they can see live Congressional votes, as well as how other app users and peers in their district with the app are "voting," through their own up or down votes placed through Capitol Bells. A tap on the number of the bill that is being debated and voted on takes users to Twitter, where users can see what, if anything, people are saying about the legislation.

"This is not a constituent outreach app, it's more of a mobile Congress, virtual Congress app," Henderson said in an interview.

Political junkies, reporters and lobbyists have contacts on the Hill and know where to look to figure out when votes are happening for themselves, but this system is designed to make it easy for the average political junkie, armchair activist or political organizer to passively stay attuned remotely to real-time votes through iPhone alerts, without having to tune into C-Span. Henderson also thinks the app should be useful for Beltway insiders and lawmakers. As the system scales, they could track public and constituent reaction and input on specific votes.

The House has made tremendous progress under the current Republican leadership in making its documents and legislation machine-readable, its hearings more accessible online, and data on the House schedule easier to find. It's this real-time notification of votes, and when they're happening on the floor, that hasn't been as directly accessible to the public, notes Henderson. C-Span still has a monopoly on real-time vote tallies.

So Henderson installed equipment at the Capitol to tune in to radio signals that activate the bell notification system so that he could broadcast those vote alerts to iPhone users. He also got around the C-Span monopoly by writing an app that uses optical recognition to capture C-Span's live vote tallies, which are streamed through their broadcasts online. His app then transmits those vote tallies to users of Capitol Bells.

It's an interesting feeling to use the app years after I spent time covering Congress in person. I spent part of Wednesday monitoring a UStream broadcast of a House Judiciary Committee markup. Just before the stream cut off for a committee recess, an alert popped up on my iPhone informing me that a floor vote on the Defense appropriations bill was beginning. Thanks to the alert system, I knew that members of the committee were headed to the House floor. It did feel, in a sense, that I was almost back there on the Hill.

The idea for the app came to Henderson after Kildee retired in January and he left the Hill, he said. He felt shut out of the lawmaking process because he didn't know when votes were happening. The former mechanical engineer and climate science graduate student sees Capitol Bells as a way to keep a closer eye on members of the House -- but he acknowledges that by the time legislation reaches the floor there's only a limited impact that citizens can have, since the House leadership by then has already decided what is going to be debated and voted on, and on what terms.

Nevertheless, he sees many possibilities for the future.

For example, he says that he could build in functionality that would enable citizens to track legislation important to them and to simultaneously track their members' activity in relation to that legislation. They could even contact their representatives and organize campaigns within their districts to urge their members to support specific pieces of legislation.

In its current incarnation, the app looks as if it is full of intriguing potential. Henderson says that he needs $20,000 to further develop the app to port it over to Android, to build in the functionality to compare users' votes to your members' votes, and to add the bill search and promotion feature.