Articles From January 2011
We at POPVOX think this is a great idea .
Given this new world of Congressional connectivity, we thought you might like to see for yourself the kind of information that legislators and staff can access on POPVOX. From bill status information, to real-time constituent input, we are providing the tools to help Congress do its job better. So, here's a quick overview of what Congress sees on POPVOX:
A Customized Bill Tracking Docket helps staffers and Members manage the myriad issues and bills they need to follow on a daily basis, based on their unique profile, including issue areas, committees, and district; and shows real-time constituent sentiment from POPVOX.
What's in the legislative docket?
- Bill lists by hot issues in the state or district, and by issue areas
- Bookmarked key bills for quick access
- Bill status, sponsor information and co-sponsor tallies
- Pie charts illustrating constituent sentiment
- Comments from constituents
- Lists of endorsing/opposing organizations
Constituent comments are displayed in two ways: A running “feed” of recent comments, sortable by state and Congressional district; and on bill reports, tied to specific bills. The only information displayed with these comment is a user’s screen name and Congressional district EXCEPT when the staffer or Member views Comments from the home district. In that case, the full name and city of the commenter is displayed, in order to help those in Congress better respond directly to constituents’ concerns. (The comments are also forwarded to the Congressional office.)
Bill reports were designed to provide all of the information a legislative staffer needs to make a vote recommendation - in one place. That includes bill status and co-sponsors, constituent sentiment pie chart and cumulative support graph, endorsing and opposing organizations, constituent comments (searchable for all of POPVOX, or by state or Congressional district), and a map of support. One staffer told us, "this will do my job fo me!" And that is exactly the point. (These reports are also available to the public, for free, on POPVOX.)
Organization Profiles & Contact Info
Staffers have the same access to the POPVOX Organization Directory as other users, with the ability to search organizations by issue area or name. In addition, staffers and Members see emails and phone numbers of organization contacts. This is to facilitate the ability for Congress to easily contact an expert on any issue.
Today we delivered the first POPVOX user comment by "email" to a Member of Congress. As you might have noticed, this aspect of the site has been in development during our beta period: we're taking it slow to make sure we deliver messages electronically reliably and with accountability. And when I read the message we sent, I was reminded about why POPVOX is important. (Just a note that Congressional staff and others can already see your comments on POPVOX. This is just about getting comments into their constituent mail inboxes.)
As our chief technologist my job is to build the site, and I am often stuck in the weeds of making sure every last detail of what you see works correctly. Or when I am running sister-website GovTrack.us, my concerns are about data, data, and more data --- tracking bill status, votes, and on. To me, data is fascinating. But it is also impersonal.
It is a humbling experience each time I pick my head up out of the weeds and let it sink inÂ that so many people are visiting GovTrack, and now POPVOX, because they, or you, have personal stories about ways the law has or could impact the important parts of your life. In the first message we delivered to Congress, the author relates that his own job had been outsourced to Mexico. Who am I to be asking members of the public to share their stories? It is a privilege, I truly feel, that anyone should place trust in us to share their stories with and, also, that we may be the ones to pass on those stories to the appropriate Members of Congress. (Sorry if that sounds sappy.)
It will be a while longer before we are able to deliver all messages to Congress. There is no centralized inbox for Congress, and each congressional office handles incoming messages in a different way. Some do not allow third parties such as POPVOX to relay messages, but we'll be reaching out to those offices to change that. Even since before POPVOX got started I have been working with nonprofits and other technology vendors on establishing a better system. Until then we'll be working within the confines of today's reality. On this front, please hang tight.
Nevertheless, POPVOX has never been about being just the deliveryman. Our focus is on creating an open platform for everyone to see what those who participate are saying, and building the tools to make the sheer volume of constituent comments understandable. That is the part that we feel is most powerful. You might have noticed that we are now showing maps of constituent opinion on our bill report pages. That's just one of many ideas we have for how your stories are more powerful when they are public together. I'll write more about the maps when we put the finishing touches on them.
You can usually tell if someone is new to the Hill by whether they flinch or even break pace in conversation when the buzzers for votes start going. The real pros can tell you what the buzzers mean. For new staff, Members and visitors to Capitol Hill, we thought a POPVOX primer was in order:
For Members of Congress, there is never enough time in any day. They want to take as many constituent meetings, speech invitations, interviews as they can. Caucuses and Committee meetings must go on, despite almost non-stop activity on the House or Senate Floor when the bodies are in session. To accommodate for this, both chambers employ a system of bells (that sound more like buzzers) and lights (on clocks and displays throughout the Capitol Complex) that provide alerts to Members. Almost no one knows what they mean, and you can easily survive life on Capitol Hill without ever having a clue.
Everyone’s schedule is subject to the buzzing of those bells: committee meetings are stopped, constituent meetings delayed. Elevators flash “members only,” and Members scramble through the Capitol Complex tunnels and across Independence and Constitution Avenue like 8-year-olds afraid of getting a tardy slip for class.
For those who have been around a while, the buzzers make perfect sense. For most who come to the Hill in the past few years, it seems a little archaic - couldn’t they just send out an SMS? Text message? Most people don’t automatically know what is going on from the buzzers alone. Whenever the buzzers start, you can usually look around and see everyone reach for their blackberry holsters in unison, as if someone had yelled, “Draw!” They are checking updates from CQ/Roll Call, maybe an email from their party’s leadership, or a heads up from whomever is watching CSPAN back in the office.
For the majority party that controls the schedule, the information on upcoming votes is pretty comprehensive, and Leadership usually sends out a heads up email: “The House is beginning a series of 5 votes: the first 4 are 5-minute suspension votes on x, y, z; followed by a 15-minute vote on the rule for HR 1234.” For the minority party, the information is a little less clear. Regardless of party, however, a legislative office is in constant info-gathering mode. “Someone heard there was going to be a motion to recommit” ... “This is just the vote on the Rule, right?” If you have no idea, just be comforted by the fact that almost everyone around you feels the same way.
But what do the buzzers mean ?
1 Long Bell: Short Quorum Calls
- 1 LONG BELL, PAUSE, 3 BELLS, 3 LIGHTS ON LEFT - “ Short quorum call that ends when 100 or more Members are present"
- 1 LONG BELL, PAUSE, 3 LIGHTS ON LEFT EXTINGUISHED - Quorum call is over
2 Bells: Votes
- 2 BELLS, 2 LIGHTS ON LEFT - 15 minute vote by electronic device (bells repeat every 5 minutes after first bell)
- 2 BELLS, 2 LIGHTS ON LEFT, PAUSE, 2 MORE BELLS - 15 minute vote by roll call. (Bells repeat when the Clerk reaches the R’s in the first call of the roll.)
- 2 BELLS, PAUSE, 5 MORE BELLS - First vote on clustered votes. (2 bells repeat 5 minutes after the first bell.)
- First vote is a 15-minute vote
- Each successive vote signaled by 5 bells
3 Bells: 15-min Quorum Calls
- 3 BELLS, 3 LIGHTS ON LEFT - 15 minute quorum call (Bells repeat 5 minutes after the first bell.)
- 3 BELLS, PAUSE, 3 MORE BELLS - 15 minute quorum call by roll call. (Bells repeat when the Clerk reaches the R’s in the first call of the roll.)
- 3 BELLS, PAUSE, 5 MORE BELLS - 15 minute quorum call that may be followed immediately by a five-minute recorded vote.
4 Bells: Adjournment:
- 4 BELLS, 4 LIGHTS ON LEFT - Adjournment of the House
5 Bells: 5-Min Votes
- 5 BELLS, 5 LIGHTS ON LEFT - Any five-minute vote.
6 Bells: Recess
- 6 BELLS, 6 LIGHTS ON LEFT - Recess of the House.
12 Bells: Warning
- 12 BELLS @ 2-second intervals, 6 LIGHTS ON LEFT - Civil Defense Warning
7th Light: House in Session
*Source: “ How Our Laws are Made ,” Revised and Updated by John V. Sullivan
Parliamentarian, United States House of Representatives, Presented by Mr. Brady of Pennsylvania , July 24, 2007
I generally enjoy the down-to-earth wisdom of Ruth Marcus at the Washington Post, but strongly disagree with her latest article bemoaning new rules proposed by the incoming House Republican Majority to allow iPads and other devices on the House Floor.
If Ms. Marcus had been on the House Floor recently she would know that, except for key votes and when they are scheduled to speak, Members don’t spend much time there. She would also know that Blackberries are already in heavy use (and yes, in Congress, it is still primarily the Blackberry that reigns supreme). It is a frequent site to see a Member speaking with a staff emailing furiously in the background (and if within CSPAN view, receiving messages from mom to sit up straight.) On June 30, 2010, the newly sworn-in Republican Rep. Charles Djou (HI-1) " made history " by becoming the first Member of Congress to use an iPad during a Floor speech (which, of course, he promptly tweeted.) Here is Rep. Henry Cueller (TX-28), debuting the iPad on the Speaker's podium. And it's not just the Legislative branch ...
Ms. Marcus objects to giving Members of Congress ample tools to do their job because most other areas of our lives do not afford us “a few minutes of living the unplugged life.” I think that a much more soothing thought is the idea of their legislators having access to real-time information and the ability to fact-check each other -- whether that be legislative text, a relevant news article, policy papers from experts in relevant fields, or messages from their constituents. (I left my job as a Congressional staffer last year to work with my co-founders to build POPVOX , precisely because I recognized its great importance in the decisions of lawmakers.)
Allowing Members of Congress better tools and hence greater independence in their research will actually increase the quality of information available to us all. Did you ever consider that the reason legislative information is so hard to find -- from the day’s schedule to amendment text -- is because the people in charge never have to look for it themselves?
Members of Congress have the best search engine in the country: Congressional staff. They just have to ask, and these masters-degreed human Googles go to work finding the answer as quickly as possible. Many an academic, agency, or organization contact has been on the other end of a frantic staff call that begins with, “My boss is on the Floor and he needs this information NOW.”
I believe that a Member of Congress with an iPad who searches in vain on THOMAS for information they feel should be readily available, will soon demand a better THOMAS. The same goes for any government website. As they say in Silicon Valley, let's let them “ eat their own dog food .”
(For media inquiries, please contact Marci Harris, POPVOX’s CEO, at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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