Phone Service Connects Low-Tech Citizens to Legislatures

Government transparency organization develops phone service for users to call and get updates about state legislatures with Google Alerts-style features.
by | June 13, 2012

By Sarah Rich, Government Technology

Providing citizens with tools to learn more about government doesn’t necessarily mean having to go high tech. Call to Congress, released Monday, June 11, only requires dialing a phone number.

The new service allows citizens to call a toll-free number to find out how “representatives are voting on bills and raising campaign money,” according to a blog post from the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that promotes government transparency.

In the age of digital services, why connect citizens to congressional information solely through a phone call?

“It is very much deliberately low tech. We already post most of this information through websites and through smartphone apps,” said Tom Lee, director of Sunlight Labs, a division of the Sunlight Foundation. “We know that some people will never have a smartphone, who will never be able to take advantage of those kinds of interfaces, and we don’t want to leave them behind.”

Lee said the 24-hour-a-day service (available in English, Spanish and Esperanto) is an interactive voice response system and works similarly to a bank’s customer assistance phone service. Through a series of voice prompts, Call on Congress helps users find out information about bills that are before Congress and get summaries of what they’re about.

For users who are uncertain about which legislator represents where they live, they can find out that information by providing a ZIP code on the call. To learn more about a specific legislator, Lee said a user can connect to legislators’ offices to speak with a representative about the caller’s position on a particular bill.

According to InfoDocket, a library journal, the concept of the phone service is useful and should be offered by local libraries.

The service was built on Twilio, an application programming interface (API) for interactive phone capabilities, according to Sunlight Labs. To integrate the multilingual capability into the service, Sunlight Labs and Twilio use the Google Translate API.

The Call to Congress number is 1-888-907-6886.

Sunlight Foundation also released a new Web feature called Scout. Instead of calling a phone number, the free service is Web-based and allows for users to sign up for alerts and updates from Congress and state legislatures through email or SMS.

“Scout is an attempt to create Google alerts for government,” Lee said. “It takes a lot of information about what’s going on in statehouses, in the regulatory process and on Capitol Hill, and it boils it down into a SMS email alert system that will keep you up-to-date on your particular topics of interest.”

Other features of Scout include:

• the ability to search every bill and regulation in the federal government;

• notification for when Congress plans to vote on a bill;

• the ability to follow and search state bills; and

• the capability to import RSS feeds to complement issue alerts.

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