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Ready to Launch, A New Platform to Ask Elected Officials Anything

BY Miranda Neubauer | Friday, February 7 2014

Last week, the White House made something of a splash with its Big Block of Cheese Day, encouraging internet users to ask members of the Obama administration and the White House staff questions on social media.

A new platform officially launching Monday hopes to provide voters with the opportunity to pose questions to elected officials and other prominent figures every day of the year, in some ways echoing an ongoing Ask Me Anything concept.

AskThem is a new non-profit, open-source project from the Participatory Politics Foundation, the same group behind OpenCongress, which tracked congressional legislation and campaign contribution records. Through AskThem, users can pose questions to elected officials who have signed up and to any verified Twitter user. Once the question reaches a certain signature threshold, AskThem will submit the question via e-mail to officials who have signed up and via social media.

"The ultimate goal of AskThem is to set a cultural expectation that if a significant number of people ask a question, it deserves a public response," said David Moore, director of AskThem. "Part of our nonprofit mission is to help people stay in continual contact with the people who represent them and we saw a real lack in the landscape of a question-and-answer platform."

In the U.S., AskThem drew inspiration from the success of the White House's We The People platform, in addition to receiving input from pioneering international examples. Those include the German platform Parliament Watch (or Abgeordneten Watch), which Moore noted has been very successful in pushing for public answers, also with the help of media partnerships such as Der Spiegel, and projects in Britain backed by mySociety including Write to Them and They Work For You.

"A big challenge was getting the data," Moore said, explaining that the team spent a large portion of the last year gathering data on elected officials throughout the country so users can enter their addresses and see their representatives. The team used resources including the Google Civic Information API and the Democracy Map API, and scraped data from City Council websites, to collect information on 142,000 elected officials nationwide including all members of Congress, governors, state legislators and mayors and City Council members from the top 60 U.S. cities by population. The launch is focusing on Knight Foundation communities Philadelphia and San Jose, as well as New York City, where the group is based. There the three prominent open and participatory government advocates who have signed up are Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, City Council member Ben Kallos and City Council member Brad Lander. Also among the other 62 elected officials who signed up for the start are Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell and five of seven City Council members there.

Gathering data on elected officials was also a challenge for Democracy.com, a recently-launched start-up focused on creating web platforms for local campaigns and establishing a social network for politics.

Asked how the platform differed from Change.org and others, Moore emphasized the non-profit and open-source aspects of the project. He noted that the platform will be making APIs and bulk-downloads available with data on the questions and will "take a look at" making the data on elected officials available. He also explained that AskThem hopes to create a type of interactive second-screen experience around government events from the State of the Union and State of the States to city council meetings and other larger advocacy efforts. The team is able to scrape agendas and minutes from City Councils that use the Legistar system, such as for Philadelphia. Moore explained, "You can imagine a State of the State address, like we recently saw with Governor Christie, you can imagine there being some pretty pointed public questions around that and with Congress, you can imagine for the State of the Union, in all 435 Congressional districts, we have a page for the representative, and we're seeking to encourage people to say, what issue would you have President Obama address in the State of the Union." Last summer, WNYC used Google Moderator to crowdsource questions ahead of the New York City mayoral debates.

The platform is also purposefully launching right ahead of the Feb. 11 Day We Fight Back campaign day against surveillance, which Participatory Politics Foundation's partner organization Fight for the Future is helping to organize. "We hope that our advocacy platform can be used to connect people to their elected officials...and really filter an issue like domestic surveillance up the chain of government from mayors to state legislators to governors to Congress."

Moore noted the ability for users to search the platform by questions with the most signatures or by issue tag: "With all the richness that a web app gives you for finding questions to support and then getting public answers to them...and just seeing what the most popular questions are in your area -- that's a different value proposition to the user than just happening to see a tweet that got retweeted a 100 times or seeing what your friends say on Facebook."

AskThem does, however, encourage users to share questions they support on social media and by e-mail, and Moore said that will be an important way to spread the word about the platform. AskThem will also work to spur adoption and promote the site through partnerships with Fight for The Future, the Code for America brigades and the Knight Foundation communities. "This is a great tool to have leverage at the city government level...if in your city you want to propose a plastic bag ban, AskThem can connect all your supporters with their City Council members, and you can raise the question, and gather support for it and push for a public response," Moore said.

AskThem also prompts officials to encourage supporters or advocacy groups to ask them questions, and plans to monitor and if necessary adjust the threshold required for officials to respond. "For example, if a given level of elected official is regularly receiving more than five questions per month that reach the signature threshold, we will examine raising it," the site explains in its FAQ. The site goes on to explain:

[Any] individual elected official who is a verified responder in AskThem can request of our team to customize his or her signature threshold (within reason). So for an elected official who agrees to respond publicly to one or two questions per month that reach the threshold (in some cases, with at least half of the signatures-to-threshold coming from constituents), she may choose to raise her individual threshold on AskThem, or test different goals... [Our] medium-term goal is to set a ballpark of signature thresholds at 0.1% of a jurisdiction's population, as determined by the U.S. Census and open data....For example, if the 2012 population of Chicago is 2.175 million people, the signature threshold for the mayor of Chicago may start at 0.1% of that, viz. 2,175 signatures, and be adjusted from there according to site analytics.

Currently the default thresholds are 1,000 for a U.S. Senator, 700 for House members, 200 for governors and verified Twitter users, 100 for state legislators and major city mayors and 25 for major City Council members.

Support for the site came in the form of a $225,000 grant from the Knight Foundation's Tech for Engagement program and the proceeds from the Sunlight Foundation's acquisition of OpenCongress in October 2013. TechPresident editorial director Micah Sifry is a member of the AskThem Advisory Council, along with law professor Zephyr Teachout, mySociety director Tom Steinberg and entrepreneur and Kennedy School faculty member Nicco Mele, among others.

"We hope to surpass 100 participating elected officials nationwide in the next couple of months and we hope to reach hundreds of thousands of visitors over the rest of the year," Moore said, citing the previous success of Open Congress.

Since President Obama has a verified Twitter account, it is possible to ask him questions via AskThem as well, but that is not the priority, Moore said. "Our app is focused on the other 141,999 elected officials nationwide approximately."

Newly elected New York City Council member Kallos, who also is the new chair of the Government Operations Committee and has a background in transparency advocacy as well as technology consulting and development, said AskThem encapsulated the goals of VotersGive.com, a platform he had previously worked on setting up with the aim of providing an online space for constituents to interact with their elected officials. "AskThem is the embodiment of that vision," he said. "With AskThem, the real opportunity [is] for constituents to ask a question, and know that it's being asked in a public forum, and know that other people will see their questions, can share and sign on to their questions and say 'This question also affects me,'" he went on to say.

"And it also is a useful tool for us so that we can gauge interest in a specific topic...it shows that we are being responsive when we are and if people aren't, it helps the public really gauge whether or not we're doing a good job," said Kallos. "...some people wonder how are you going to handle it if you're getting bombed with a million questions a day, and I think it's actually helpful to have a transparent process where people can see [members] being asked a million questions a day...we're going to do our best to answer each question as it comes in."

TechPresident publisher Andrew Rasiej and editorial director Micah Sifry are senior advisers to the Sunlight Foundation.