📌 This text is the result of the transcription of the panelist’s participation in Bússola Tech’s event
My name is Stephen Dwyer and I’m a staffer for the House Majority Leader in the United States Congress. I have been the lead on an App from within and built in the Majority Leader’s office that has been a success for six years. I’m excited to have this opportunity to share it with other colleagues around the world who do similar work in parliaments and legislatures.
The app is called Dome Watch and it can be found on App Store and Play Store, with a web version available at https://domewatch.us/. We made it originally in 2015, and we have had three major iterations and we’re currently building 4.0.
Differently from other Apps for legislatures, it’s not targeted at the public, it is instead targeted at our members of the U.S. House and our staff.
The first version
It’s designed to make our members’ and staff’s lives easier. However, it’s not an internal App, we made it available to the public and therefore it’s also a big transparency win for the civil society, the press and academics that follow the U.S. House closely.
The public love the App and it shines a light on the House Representatives in a way that didn’t exist before. It’s only interesting to people that really care about the vote by vote happenings in the House of Representatives.
We have over 50,000 installs, but we are especially proud of 10,000 heavy active users. Our App is used by 10,000 people every single time the House of Representatives has votes and we know that it is mostly used by members of Congress from both parties and their staff, but also by lobbyists, the press and civic organizations.
We are very proud of that and that’s why we have been pressured to keep making new versions with new features.
I would like to give you a quick background and tell you what the App does and how we came up with it. The majority leader’s office is under the leadership of Congressman Steny Hoyer. He has valued innovation and he has allowed myself to work with programmers in a very agile way to make apps.
That’s all possible because a member of leadership, with access to a little bit more budget than a normal member of Congress, decided to use that limited budget to innovate and to make tools that are actually useful to members.
The majority leader is elected by his members of Congress, so making interesting innovative tools that help those people who are the ones that elect him is in his interest, and so that has been the motivation and that has worked very well for us.
The Majority Leader has two primary roles: I) To run the House floor and decide which bills we vote on and; II) Deal with the calendar of votes.
Those are ordinary things that all legislatures have to do, but it’s incredibly important. Before we had this App, the calendar was a PDF – which from a technologist perspective is just a disaster and an old way of doing things.
The vote information was just an email and it still does go out an email for people that want to get that information, but the real innovation of our App was that this information should be presented in a modern technological advanced way.
Before we could even make the App, we had to put the calendar in a fully digital format, where we were publishing calendar information in the latest technological standards. People could add the entire calendar to their Google Calendar, including future updates. That’s why we use an open standard.
That also made adding the calendar to the App very easy. Once we had it in a modern webcal, we were able to add it into Dome Watch and have things like notifications for different days whether there are votes or not. Finally those emails that were going out for much more urgent matters, such as to call members for a vote on the floor. Instead of sending just an email, we just put that information in its own clean App, because everyone’s email is a mess and nobody can read their email nor wants their phone to buzz every time an email comes in.
However, members did want their phone to buzz when they got a vote alert from us. That is very simple and members love to have this information about when the House is voting, whether that’s next month or in the next five minutes. They want that information in its own clean App with customisable notifications, so that they can have it buzz or make noise or whatever they want.
That was our original innovation in the version 1.0, back in 2015 to just provide that scheduling information in a very modern way, and it was very successful.
The 2.0 version
Members would come to the Majority Leader and bring lots of ideas for what should be in Dome Watch and we love that we get this feedback from members and staff. We considered what was technologically possible and what would be the most helpful to members from these feedbacks.
The big upgrade in the 2.0 version was adding the vote countdown information, so when we’re in a vote members have to get there in time if they’re going to actually vote.
It was also important for members to see the score of the vote – they want to see how many democrats or republicans have voted yes or no on specific bills. That’s the most important information, so when the members are heading to the floor to vote, they want to pull up their phone and see how much time they have left to vote and how their fellow party members have voted, since that’s probably how they’re going to vote.
The Hack on the TV feed
That information already existed in the TV stream, which went to the public via C-SPAN – the network that carries the legislative here in the United States, but that information did not exist on the internet anywhere. We asked our Clerk why they couldn’t give this information to us in a digital feed, so that we could use it in our app, which members were using and asking for it. We also mentioned it was provided to the TV feed, overlaid on the TV cameras whenever we were in a vote.
What we did was we hacked it. We put the TV feed on a computer and we took snapshot images of it and we uploaded to a cloud intelligence service – the AI service at Google Cloud – Google Vision, so we would use the OCR – Optical Character Recognition – and so then we had that data feed and we were able to show it in our app and release it to the public. An important transparency win, since it was also used by other third parties.
I love that story, we just were able to hack the system, even though we’re inside the system and our members loved it. They could see right in Dome Watch how much time was left and which parties had voted during a vote.
About a year later the TV feed changed their fonts and that broke our code, since it was optimised to certain fonts. It gave me an opportunity to go back to the Clerk’s office and say how our team has managed to do it at a great cost and effort to get this information through non-normal means and if they couldn’t just provide us the information.
Then, I finally got the approval, so we no longer have to do that process on the TV screen. I think it’s a good example, if you’re not given the information and if you can hack your way into it and find it in a positive way, then you should do that and eventually the institution will catch-up and provide it, if they see that members and staff actually wanted, used and found that information useful.
The 3.0 version
Members kept asking for the full video of the House floor as well. Surprisingly that didn’t exist. It existed on cable television, it was actually in standard definition, it was not HD – it was a very tiny little box and looked terrible with many minutes delay.
We asked ourselves why isn’t there an HD web stream of the video of the House floor?
We’re the majority leader and we should make that happen. We asked for it from the people that do the TV on the House floor, however I think there was a sort of bureaucratic inertia and they didn’t want to change the way things happen.
We made it happen ourselves. We just did a YouTube livestream of just the TV. We put the TV on a computer and we did a livestream sending it up to the internet and that’s the way we got full HD video.
If it was copyrighted material, that wouldn’t be fair of us, but this was the video of the House of Representatives, which is a public product and we’re not even making money off of it. We are just trying to provide more information to our members and staff.
That was another fun example of how we were able to take the information that we needed, even if we weren’t given official permission.
We’re currently working with the TV team to say our effort to do this to understand why they don’t just give it to us and the public, so that other people can use the live video of the floor, because it’s public information.
The future of Dome Watch
We’re building the version 4.0 and we have lots of new exciting features. We’re very agile, we only have one dedicated programmer, sometimes we pull in one or two others to help at certain times.
It’s a lot of fun and it’s been more accepted by the House of Representatives, so we’re getting help from the institutional offices.
There’s been articles written in the U.S. about Dome Watch about how much it’s used and appreciated and some of them joke that if it was a private product, it could sell advertisements at very high rates, because of all the members of congress and other users using it. However, we’re proud that we built it in-house, as a service.
We think parliaments should also spend some of their funds, their offices and their staff on innovation and changing the way things happen to make them more open and modern.
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