Last week, the Library of Congress launched Congress.gov in beta, its vision of the next generation of THOMAS, the online repository of the nation’s legislative data. The site features a “most viewed bills” list that lets visitors to the site see at a glance what laws or proposals are gathering interest the site.
That the top bill is the Stop Online Piracy Act — and that the PROTECT IP Act is also in the top 5 — is unlikely to be a surprise to observers. The other bills at the top of the list — HR3035 Mobile Informational Call Act, HR2306 Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act and S3240 Agriculture Reform, Food, and Jobs Act – may be more unfamiliar to many people. The complete list is in the infographic below, including whether POPVOX’s userbase supported or opposed them.
Marci Harris, the co-founder and CEO of POPVOX, wrote in via email to note that, as the 112th Congress comes to a close, the sequestration issue is starting to pop.
**DISCLAIMER: Tim O’Reilly, my publisher, provided angel funding for POPVOX last year. He calls it “a kind of Google Analytics service for politics, bringing visibility and actionable insight to both Congressional staffers and advocacy organizations.”
Data from a new study on the use of Twitter by U.S. Senator and Representatives by public relations giant Edelman strongly suggests that the Grand Old Party has opened up a grand old lead in its use of the popular microblogging platform in just about every metric.
On Twitter’s 6th birthday, there’s more political speech flowing through tweets than ever. Twitter data from the study, as provided by Simply Measured, showed that on Twitter, Republican lawmakers are mentioned more, reply more often, are retweeted more, share more links to rich content and webpages, and reference specific bills much more often. Republicans tweet about legislation 3.5 times more than Democrats.
There are also more Republicans on Twitter: while the 89 U.S. Senators who tweet are evenly split, with one more Republican Senator tipping the balance, in the U.S. House there are 67 more Republican Representatives expressing themselves in 140 characters or less.
At this point, it’s worth noting that one of Twitter’s government leads in DC estimated earlier this year that only 15-20% of Congressional Twitter accounts are actually being updated by the Congressmen themselves, but the imbalance stands.
While the ways that governments deal with social media cannot be measured by one platform alone nor the activity upon it, the data in the embedded study below be of interest to many, particularly as the window for Congress to pass meaningful legislation narrows as the full election season looms this summer.
In the context of social media and election 2012, how well a Representative or Senator is tweeting could be assessed by whether they can use Twitter to build awareness of political platforms, respond to opposing campaign or, perhaps importantly for the purposes of the election, reach potential voters, help get them registered, and bring them to the polls
Outreach and transparency are both valuable to a healthy democracy, and to some extent, it is re-assuring that Twitter use is motivated by both reasons. An interesting counter-factual situation would be if the Republicans were the majority party. We may therefore ask in that situation: Is the desire to reach out to (opposing) voters strongest for “losing” parties? Our study certainly hints that Republicans are not only motivated to use Twitter as a means to reach out to their own followers, but also to Democrats, as they are more likely to use Twitter in cases where their district was overwhelmingly in favor President Barack Obama.
All-in-all, it would seem like Twitter is good for the whole Gov 2.0 idea. If Republicans are using Twitter as a means for outreach, then more bills may be passed (note: this has yet to be tested empirically, and still remains an open question for researchers). If Democrats are using Twitter as a means for transparency, then the public benefits from the stronger sense of accountability.
The app enables people to use Facebook to track the progress of House legislation as it makes its way through the chamber, but also provides the majority leader’s office with an interesting new grassroots marketing tool for the Republican party’s ideas.
The new app makes use of Facebook’s Open Graph protocol, which means that once installed, updates to legislation that a user has expressed support for can be automatically posted to their Facebook profiles. It also means that these updates show up in users’ timelines, newsfeeds and tickers, giving the legislation more exposure to users’ networks of friends.
For now, the list of legislation that citizens can choose to support is controlled, of course, by Cantor’s office and is listed on a section of his web site. Citizens can click to “co-sponsor” legislation that they support, and see all the other citizen co-sponsors who’ve expressed their support. Each widget for each piece of legislation also shows a visual storyline of that legislation’s progress through the House.
Second, a post by Alex Fitzpatrick at Mashable on the Facebook citizen cosponsor app , in which he interviewed Matt Lira, the director of digital for the House Majority Leader.
“We have a startup mentality to it,” says Lira. “When Twitter first started, it was just going to be for cell phones, now it is what it is today. It’s evolutionary, so you want to see how users use it and if the engagement justifies it, we’ll expand it out.”
The new media team at Cantor’s office is drawing inspiration from both sides of the aisle. Lira says he’s a fan of Rep. Issa’s (R-Calif.) Madison Project as well as the White House’s “We the People” online petitions. He talked about online bill markups, hearings and expert roundtables as possibilites for ways to expand the Citizen Cosponsor in the future.
“We want the program to give more to users than is asks of them,” says Lira. “The only way this stuff works is if you have a tolerance for experimentation and a certain level of patience. I’ve been impressed with We the People and that’s very experimental — it’s in the spirit of ‘let’s throw something out there and see if it works.’ Otherwise, there’s the alternative: a conference room of ideas that never happen.”
In late 2007 when I, as a staffer, shopped an idea around within Congress to create a public platform for constituent engagement, I discovered that it was nearly impossible to build something like that within the institution of Congress outside of the partisan caucus system. You could either build a Democratic-sponsored tool or a Republican-sponsored tool, but there was no structure for building a nonpartisan CONGRESSIONAL tool (and don’t even get me started on how impossible integration between House and Senate was/is.)* My experience does not mean that nonpartisan strides are impossible — just challenging, and that any effort should be viewed with a critical eye.
…why not use the publicly available data on all pending legislation and allow citizens to “co-sponsor” any bill currently being weighed by the legislature?
No matter how we feel about Facebook’s privacy provisions, we’ll be the first to admit that it is the default way to connect with people these ways. We’re not poo-poohing any initiative that harnesses social media that makes it easier for people to get involved in the political process, and we’re not bashing this from a partisan point of view. We’re bashing it from a point of view that cares about transparency.
Cantor’s ploy reeks of partisanship disguised as bipartisanship (nowhere on the main page of the site are the words “Democrat” or “Republican” used). And while the Cosponsor Project may be more participatory, it’s certainly not the “open, visible” platform he promises in his introduction.
That all adds up to a strong critique. As the app stands, however, it’s an important first step into the water for integration of Facebook’s social graph into legislation.
That said, there are some flaws, from an unclear Terms of Service to permissive data usage to a quite limited selection of bills that citizens can follow or support.
In addition, as a commenter on Mashable notes, “Unless there’s a way to show how many people are *against* proposed bills, this will not provide a clear picture as to the support they actually have. You might have a significant number of citizen cosponsors (say 25k), but that number loses its significance if the number of people against is, say 125k. You need both measures in order to get an idea as to whether or not a proposed bill is truly supported.”
I’ve asked Lira a number of followup questions and will file something for Radar if he responds. In the meantime, what do you think of the app and the initiative? Please let us know in the comments, keeping the following perspective from Harris in mind:
As with any startup, the first iteration is never perfect. Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn, famously said, “if you are not embarrassed by your first release, you’ve launched too late.” In that sense, maybe the Majority Leader is learning from the startup world. In an email response to my questions, Matt Lira, Director of New Media for Majority Leader Cantor, seemed to indicate that there were iterations to come: “As was the case when I publicly defended We the People, this is an evolutionary step – there will be continual progress, as with all these things, towards the desired end of a modernized Congress.”
Update: “We’ve always characterized both MADISON and Citizen CoSponsors as digital experiments that we are both admittedly excited about and that I personally believe have great potential to grow,” responded Matt Lira, director of digital for the House Majority Leader’s office, via email.
“These are the type of projects that will modernize our country’s legislative institutions for the social media age,” he wrote. “We are trying really new things like MADISON and Citizens. We are successfully driving institutional reforms on a structural basis. We are the same people who created docs.House.gov, require a public posting period for legislation, and established a machine-readable document standard. In short, people who have done more to open the House of Representatives than anyone in history.”
With respect to “e-partisanship,” Lira noted that “from the moment it launched, the app included a bill sponsored by a Democratic Representative. Some of the other bills – like the JOBS Act – have widespread support on both sides. I launched with six bills, because I wanted to see how the app works in the field, before making any choices about its wider deployment, should that even be justified.”
This post has updated to include a disclosure about Tim O’Reilly’s early investment in POPVOX.
Yesterday, David Copeland reported at ReadWriteWeb that the GOP tried to replicate the success of the White House’s #40dollars social media campaign on Twitter with their own #1000days effort. As the Chicago Tribune reported, the GOP campaign sought to highlight an inauspicious milestone for the U.S. Senate. 1,000 since it passed a budget. Democrats, who control the Senate, last approved a budget in 2009.
The President addresses America tonight about the State of our Union. Will he ask @SenateDems to pass a budget for first time in #1000days ?
Writes Copeland, “It’s clear that the digitial [sic] media campaigns had different goals, and #1000days was primarily aimed at emphasizing a point that was notably absent in President Obama’s State of the Union address last night. But if social media as it pertains to politics is truly about connecting with voters and constituents, score one for the Democrats.”
In this particular case, I mostly agree. The GOP’s efforts at gop.gov/sotu this year constituted an unprecedented use of the Web and social media by an opposition party to respond to a State of the Union, with smart integration of Twitter and YouTube. Citizens asked questions on the #GOPSOTU hashtag and Members of Congress responded using YouTube. As the Daily Dot reported, the #1000days hashtag has failed to spread beyond the Beltway. From what I’ve seen, the four reasons why #1000days hasn’t resonated in the same way break down into structural, tactical, and strategic issues:
1) Structural issue: Reach. Based upon the statistics I’ve seen, the @WhiteHouse has much more reach than than any single other “governance” account on Twitter. The GOP caucus in Congress, former Massachusetts governor@MittRomney and the @Heritage Foundation do have, in aggregate, an even or greater number of engaged followers. That said, the @BarackObama campaign account, which amplified the #40dollars conversation, has far greater reach, if lower engagement. Both metrics matter, in terms of the ability to involving and focusing more citizens in a given conversation around a #hashtag at a given time.
2) Tactical issue: Timing. The #1000days campaign was launched during the #SOTU, when the attention of politically engaged Americans was fractured between paying attention to the President’s speech itself, watching online (3m+ visits to wh.gov/sotu), reading the media organizations competing to report or fact check on the speech online, watching the TV networks and, of course, talking to one another.
3) Strategic issue: Adaptability. Agreeing upon and passing a budget is a fundamental, basic issue for the operations of any business, organization or government entity. Congress and the Obama administration have cobbled together a series of continuing resolutions and omnibus bills to fund itself over the past 3 years. While many Americans have to make and live by budgets in their personal lives and businesses, however, the #1000days campaign may be both too abstract and too constrained to a single message. The question about #40dollars, by contrast, asked citizens what it means to them, which is concrete, personal and invites creative answers.
4) Tactical issue: Engagement and Amplification. As Copeland reports, “Ahead of last night’s State of the Union address, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney and other Republicans started tweeting using the hashtag #1000days to accent the amount of time since Senate Democrats passed a federal budget.”
On Tuesday night, the top tweets for a search of the #1000days hashtag come from @MittRomney and Republican politicians. Neither Romney nor @SenJohnMcCain had retweeted any followers who have used the hashtag. @SpeakerBoehner has primarily retweeted the @GOPconference or other members of his caucus. The Heritage Foundation has only retweeted its own staff. That pattern is replicated throughout other participating accounts.
The @WhiteHouse, in contrast, continued its practice of resharing tweets from Twitter users who joined the conversation, sharing the voices of citizens with one another, not just other politicians. There’s a good lesson in this successful use to of Twitter that should extend well beyond citizen engagement and open government circles. One campaign amplified the messages of the representatives, the other channeled the voices of constituents responding to their elected issues on on a given issue back through the accounts coordinating the effort.
As I pointed out last year in an article on social media, politics and influence, it’s of note that the operators of the @WhiteHouse Twitter account now routinely natively retweet other accounts participating in #WHchats. While some of these Tweets will leave followers without context for the Tweet, the White House appears to have shifted its online strategy to one of engagement versus the lower risk style broadcasting that most politicians adopt online. To date, many of the president’s political opponents have not followed suit.
The challenges of these four issues look validated by the results to date: some 6,000 tweets per hour for #40dollars at the height of the campaign, as Ed O’Keefe wrote at the Washington Post. Keefe, on a talk on Monday, given by Kori Schulman, White House deputy director for digital strategy, “by 5 p.m., #40dollars was trending worldwide, Schulman said, and the hashtag was generating about 6,000 tweets per hour. At the height of the push, WhiteHouse.gov received about 5,000 responses per hour to the question.” In total, Schulman said the #40dollars campaign “generated 70,000 tweets, 46,000 submissions via the White House Web site, 10,000 related Facebook posts and contributions from 126,000 users.”
The C-SPAN coverage of the resignation of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) and tributes to her in the United States House of Representatives included something new: the House-controlled cameras provided an unusual display of extra TV camera shots in the House chamber, including the Giffords family in the House gallery.
In general, the viewing public does not get to see what’s happening elsewhere in the House. “These additional angles added much to the public’s appreciation for this Congressional action,” said Howard Mortman, communications director for C-SPAN, “and might lead one to ask, why not permit such camera shots every day?”
Mortman also alerted me to another interesting development: According to a new Roll Call story, journalists now can bring their laptops into the press gallery and use them to report on what’s happening. Reporters have to ask to do it — and they’ll need to have fully charged laptop batteries — but Superintendent Jerry Gallegos told Roll Call that he will allow laptops in for special events.
“It won’t be something that at this point we’ll be doing on a daily basis, just because power is an issue out there,” he said. “But because the House changed their rules allowing BlackBerrys on the floor … it didn’t make sense for Members to be able to tweet and not be able to have reporters get the tweets.”
It’s not the first time computers have graced the gallery, Gallegos said. The decision to allow laptops goes back to then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). But the gallery staff tired of arguing with testy writers about why plugging multiple power cords into limited outlets and running wires across the floor is a fire hazard.
“Early on, they weren’t going to be able to operate without plugging in,” he said. “It was very obvious that was going to create a safety hazard.”
Thankfully, battery technology has evolved since the 1990s and the House Chief Administrative Office equipped the chamber with Wi-Fi in August. So, Gallegos said, “It just seemed like now was the time.”
Even if the laptops run out of battery power or have connectivity issues, however, reporters will now have another option: Mortman tells me that iPhones, iPads, BlackBerrys and other smartphones will also be allowed into the press gallery of the U.S. House on a “trial basis.”
As a result, we should expect to see more livetweeting and Facebook updates from journalists on-site. That said, there’s a major caveat: Mortman said that the trial will be monitored to ensure that no photos or video are recorded.
Given the role that smartphones now play in the professional lives of journalists of all beats, political, tech or otherwise, the limitation on pictures and video is notable. There’s a good chance that the trial could be tested, as soon as a newsworthy event occurs off the C-SPAN camera. Late last year, during a debate over the payroll tax, House staff shut down C-SPAN cameras. Government staff acting to limit the capacity of a journalist to record a debate between elected representatives in the People’s House might raise valid First Amendment questions.
“One day, hopefully, the House (and U.S. Senate) will also allow in independent media TV cameras,” said Mortman.
On Wednesday, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development called on its members to defend Internet freedoms. “It’s really a milestone in terms of making a statement about openness,” said Karen Kornbluh, the U.S. ambassador to the O.E.C.D., quoted by Eric Pfanner in the New York Times. “You can’t really get the innovation you need in terms of creating jobs unless we work together to protect the openness of the Internet.”
The United States of America, however, also has a serious Internet freedom issue on its collective hands, as people following the progress of the ‘Stop Online Piracy Act’ (SOPA) through Congress know. If you’re unclear about the issues raised by the Stop Online Piracy Act, read my feature, “Congress considers anti-piracy bills that could cripple Internet industries,” or watch the video below, from the Cato Institute:
Cato Institute research fellow Sanchez asserts “that internet censorship won’t effectively address the problem of piracy and will threaten innovation and the liberties of Americans by engaging in unconstitutional prior restraint.” The video was produced by Caleb Brown, Austin Bragg and Julian Sanchez.
The House Judiciary Committee addressed some of the concerns raised about SOPA in the manager’s amendment of SOPA. Markup of the bill is scheduled for a hearing this Thursday morning. While some of the most controversial elements in the original bill have been edited (removal of a private right of actor, narrowed range of targets) the use of DNS and filtering as enforcement mechanisms remain. The EFF is not satisfied, stating that the manager’s amendment is “still a disaster.” <Public Knowledge and the Center for Democracy and Technology welcomes the revisions but retained serious concerns.
What happens next is less clear. It’s unlikely that Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, would have brought SOPA up for markup unless he thought he had the votes to pass it on to the full House of Representatives.
Former Internet entrepreneur Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) went further, telling CNET that SOPA will “destroy the Internet as we know it.” According to Polis, his staffers haven’t received a single call asking them to pass SOPA, but had “hundreds against” it.”
How governments deal with social media has been a focal point of friction, fantasy and fierce real-time discussion around the globe in 2011. Tonight in Washington, the first “Congressional hackathon” convened Members of the House of Representatives, staffers, media, developers and citizens at the Capitol Building in Washington to talk about how social media, open government and technology could make the “people’s house” work better for those it represents. I embedded a Storify below that collects tweets and pictures from the event, plan to file a full report at Radar tomorrow and will share video when it becomes available.
In his remarks, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer addressed how social media is affected Congress and his caucus and open government in the Executive branch. He also cited the growth of open data in cities as a model that Congress should consider for the future of Thomas.gov:
“For Congress, there is still a lot of work to be done, and we have a duty to make the legislative process as open and accessible as possible. One thing we could do is make thomas.gov – where people go to research legislation from current and previous Congresses – easier to use, and accessible by social media. Imagine if a bill in Congress could tweet its own status.
“The data available on thomas.gov should be expanded and made easily accessible by third party systems. Once this happens, developers, like many of you here today, could use legislative data in innovative ways. This will usher in new public-private partnerships that will empower new entrepreneurs who will, in turn, yield benefits to the public sector. One successful example is how cities have made public transit data accessible so developers can use it in apps and websites. The end result has been commuters saving time everyday and seeing more punctual trains and buses as a result of the transparency. Legislative data is far more complex, but the same principles apply. If we make the information available, I am confident that smart people like you will use it in inventive ways.”
If Hoyer and the House leadership would like to see that happen, several attendees at the hackathon suggested to me that Congress could take a specific action: collaborate with the Senate and send the Library of Congress a letter instructing it to provide bulk legislative data access to THOMAS.gov in structured formats so that the developers, designers and citizens around the nation can co-create a better civic experience for everyone.
Here’s the story of the rest of the event, as told in tweets and pictures:
Last week, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Representative Zoe Lofgren sent out a “Dear Colleague” letter to the other members of the House of Representatives entitled “A bipartisan attempt to regulate the Internet?”
I’ve posted the letter below in its entirety, adding a link to the bill page for the “Stop Online Piracy Act” (SOPA) (H.R. 3261) on Thomas.gov and a PopVox widget after it, and embedded my interview with U.S. Senator Ron Wyden about the PROTECT IP Act, the companion bill to SOPA in the Senate.
From: The Honorable Zoe Lofgren
Sent By: Ryan.Clough@mail.house.gov
We agree with the goal of fighting online copyright infringement, and would support narrowly targeted legislation that does not ensnare legitimate websites. We also believe that a consensus on the issue between the content and technology industries is achievable. As the attached article makes clear, H.R. 3261 unfortunately does not follow a consensus-based approach. It would give the government sweeping new powers to order Internet Service Providers to implement various filtering technologies on their networks. It would also create new forms of private legal action against websites—cutting them off from payment and advertising providers by default, without any court review, upon a complaint from any copyright owner, even one whose work is not necessarily being infringed.
Online innovation and commerce were responsible for 15 percent of U.S. GDP growth from 2004 to 2009, according to the McKinsey Global Institute. Before we impose a sprawling new regulatory regime on the Internet, we must carefully consider the risks that it could pose for this vital engine of our economy.
Congress may be one of the most unpopular institutions in the land but some of its staffers are continuing to work towards bringing its communications infrastructure into the 21st century.
The United States House of Representatives has begun beta testing streaming video from the House floor directly to mobile devices via HouseLive.gov — and they’re doing it using an open format that will work on iPads, iPhones Android devices or whatever else a citizen is using.
“Streaming the House floor to mobile devices through HouseLive.gov is just one more way the House is innovating and keeping its pledge to make Congress more open and accessible to the American people,” wrote Don Seymour in a blog post on Speaker.gov.
“The Office of the Clerk began beta testing this new H.264 live streaming feed for mobile devices last week,” wrote Seymour.
At present, supported video resolution is 480×360 and the bit rate is 650 kbps, so you’ll need to have a fast mobile connection to tune in. The bottom line, however, is that the video stream should work across ALL platforms now, desktop or mobile.
Seymour explained a bit more via email “The site now works like this: 1) when someone visits HouseLive.gov, the site first defaults to Silverlight. If Silverlight is not installed, then, 2) it defaults to Flash. If Flash is not installed/available, then, 3) it defaults to HTML5.”
He also used a key term that’s familiar to the Web world: “beta,” referring to a feature that’s still not finalized. Given that open government is in beta, and looks set to remain in that phase for a long time to come, it feels apt. Seymour asks in his blog post that citizens send feedback to the Clerk’s office: “…since this feature is still in beta, please leave a comment below if you experience any difficulties. Be sure to note your device (iPhone? Blackberry?), operating system (iOS? Android?), and connection speed (Wi-fi? 3G?); we’ll pass your note along to the Clerk’s office.”
Radhika Marya covered the news about mobile video over at Mashable, adding a few bytes of context for the addition.
The House Republicans have their share of tech-savvy staffers who have brought their side of the Hill out of the Stone Age when it comes to things like what a member’s website can do, for instance, encouraging lawmakers to adopt Drupal, a popular open-source content management system. They’ve also come up with new ways to interact with voters, such as YouCut and a project to solicit tales of regulatory woe from business owners. That said, in August, after Congress squeaked a debt-ceiling deal through both houses, Politifact reported that House Republicans have had trouble making good on another 21st-century promise: to post all legislation online 72 hours in advance of a vote.
Live video from the House floor on a mobile device isn’t likely to stimulate movement on the issues that matter to many citizens, including jobs, education, energy costs or healthcare, to name the hot buttons that will be discussed at tonight’s Republican primary debate. It will, however, give citizens a direct window to watch debates from wherever they are, however, and that’s a step forward. Speaking as someone who has suffered through abysmal streamed video of committee meetings many times — or not seen them online at all — here’s hoping that the next step for Congressional staff is to bring those proceedings into the 21st century soon too.
Update: Commenting on my post about this news on Google Plus, software architect David Bucci questions just how “open” the format in question is: “This gets an “interesting use of the word ‘open'” alert – first it tries SilverLight, then falls back to Flash, and then HTML5 using the patent-encumbered H.264. Umm … I’m looking for the “open” in there … ubiquitous != open. Instead of “open format”, it must mean “open access” (which I applaud).”