Retired California State Senator is using AI to transcribe local government hearings for search and alerts

Sam Blakeslee, a retired Republican California state senator, worked with Cal Poly students to create Digital Democracy, a service that aggregates videos of the interminable, innumerable — and vital — local government hearings and meetings and then use machine-learning systems to generate automated transcripts so that activists, journalists and citizens could search and analyze them.

Digital Democracy's transcripts use facial recognition to attribute remarks to politicians.

The project's been running in California for two years, now it's expanding to NY.

Digital Democracy generates a lot of raw data, but it relies on others to turn that data into political analysis and action. However, it is stepping in to a gap left by the collapse of local news-gathering bodies, where new reporters learned their trade by sitting through low-stakes meetings, listening attentively for high-stakes additions being slipped in at the eleventh hour or under cover of other subjects.

Digital Democracy points to a future where the tedious, labor-intensive parts of newsgathering is done by software, freeing up reporters to work from much larger, cross-referenceable, crowd-sourceable, searchable archives of related (and seemingly unrelated) transcripts. That's not to say that they'll actually do it, but they could.

In the past month, I've spoken with strategists for multiple public broadcasters outside of the USA who are looking for feedback on what they should do in the future. This project suggests an interesting role for public broadcasters: producing mine-able corpuses of government data that drastically reduce the cost and increase the effectiveness of hyper-local news startups, the kind of thing that one person can fund with a Patreon (the likes of which are already thriving and serving as a pointed thorn in the sides of the established powers).

The non-profit is also rolling out an enhanced version that will enable other organizations to embed the videos directly on their websites. Meanwhile, Digital Democracy has plans to expand to Florida and Texas, at which point the platform will reach one-third of the country's citizens. In time, Newsom hopes that Digital Democracy will be a platform on which developers of politically minded tech build other apps.

That will take time. For now, putting these videos in citizens' hands is simply a much needed step toward transparency at a time when so much policy-making is anything but. It's not a perfect system. Then again, neither is democracy.

Digital Democracy

A Heroic AI Will Let You Spy on Your Lawmakers' Every Word [Issie Lapowsky/Wired]