Democracy.io Makes It Easier To Email Your Representatives

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In 2015, emailing your U.S. representative and senators is still far harder than it should be. The appropriately titled Democracy.io was designed to solve this problem. (In the technology world, I/O refers to input/output, which aptly describes communicating with your representatives in Congress.)

Instead of visiting House.gov, Congress.gov or USA.gov to figure out who your elected officials are, then going to a congressional website to validate your constituency with a ZIP code and then filling out a form, you’re presented with a simple Web app: You enter an address, select the member of Congress you want to email, type your message in and click send.  The video below explains:

“Being able to contact your elected representatives is a critical component of a healthy democracy,” said activist Sina Khanifar, a technology fellow at the Electronic Frontier Foundation who worked on the website. “Advocacy organizations that can afford it have long had access to tools for delivering bulk constituent messages, but those solutions are expensive and generally inaccessible for regular citizens. Democracy.io helps fill that gap by giving people an easy way to have their voices are heard in Washington.”

Using a website to email Congress isn’t a new idea, of course. The top hit on Google for “contact Congress” is ContactingTheCongress.org, a 10-year-old website run by CongressMerge that pretty much looks and works like it did in 2006: Put in an address, get a link to the right form to submit a message.

That website isn’t the only free option, though. OpenCongress.org, which is now operated by the Sunlight Foundation, makes it easy to send representatives feedback about specificbills but uses an email alias to send email about anything else. The past few years have seen an upsurge of ways to contact Congress, perhaps most notably in 2012, when millions of citizens called, emailed and tweeted in opposition to the Stop Online Piracy Act and PROTECT IP Act.

But although every member of Congress has an official website with a contact form, those sites don’t list a public email address.

“There’s no way to email members of Congress directly,” Randy Lubin, a consultant who built Democracy.io’s site with developer Leah Jones, told The Huffington Post. “The only way is to fill out their forms. Each form is unique, and many have CAPTCHAs. Democracy.io is a better front-end into the current systems that Congress is using. Our messages enter the queue just like the messages sent from the clunky forms on individual representatives’ websites.”

Democracy.io was made possible by a crowdsourcing effort last year and coordinated by the Sunlight Foundation. It got underway with a team of nearly 100 volunteers reverse-engineering the contact forms on members’ websites. This created a readable open data standard and a complete open data set that enabled software to automatically complete the forms. The project then developed open source software for sending the emails.

“The system we designed is called phantom-of-the-capitol,” explained Lubin. Each time a Democracy.io user submits an email, the software creates three browser windows on an Amazon Web Service instance. If the senator or representative’s website uses a CAPTCHA, the system takes a screenshot and returns that to the user to complete.

Unlike some proprietary paid tools used by advocacy groups, Democracy.io isn’t designed to be used to bulk-email all of Congress (also known as spamming). It’s simply a way to email a constituent’s representative and senators, based on the address supplied.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation plans to add features to enable Democracy.io users to call, send letters or schedule meetings with congressmen. Lubin said the EFF plans to track how members of Congress are responding to constituent messages filed on the platform and then release data about the timeliness and relevance of those responses.

Some critics of the platform, however, have said it makes it easier to email Congress without making it easier for Congress to filter and respond to the increased volume.

Clay Johnson, the former director of Sunlight Labs and Presidential Innovation Fellow,
took the project to task on Hacker News earlier Wednesday, pointing out there are many companies that specialize in emailing Congress, but Congress lacks the institutional capacity to hear them. (The emphases below are mine.)

According to the Congressional Management Foundation, Congress receives millions of messages a day, and it doesn’t have the manpower to actually read the messages because their systems are so antiquated and underfunded. It’s as though the market goes “Congress isn’t listening to us, we need to make a tool to make our voices louder” when in fact, Congress isn’t listening to us because we’re deafeningly loud.

Want to really solve a problem? Build software that helps members of Congress receive and sort through their messages. Using their IT systems. Build a FrontApp for Congress that can handle a million messages a day and cluster things by topic group and sentiment. For bonus points, add a public element to it so that the press and the public can seewhat members have been receiving from their constituents.

Which leads to the second thing to build to help solve the problem: build a system that for real verifies that someone is a constituent instantly. Members want to hear from their constituents, not from the general public. But these electronic messages usually come with no verification. … As someone who has worked with these guys for years, PLEASE stop making tools like this, and work on the other side of the equation.

Eric Mill, a software engineer for 18F and former open government developer at Sunlight Labs who worked on the project, rebutted Johnson’s comments:

EFF and Sunlight collaborated to create the data ecosystem necessary for this project in order to change that dynamic and make it possible to mechanize the sending of letters to Congress for free. That EFF and Sunlight could justify spending a pretty amazing upfront investment of staff labor and resources to create that ecosystem demonstrates that the existing vendor-driven market was limiting who could participate. …

[Congressional staffers are] not the customer, and to treat them that way is a great way to ensure that Congress is never made uncomfortable. It doesn’t matter how many staff complain to the CMF about it. …

For sending messages to Congress, the burden is appropriately on Congress to find a way to handle receiving them.

Responding to frustrated Congressional staff by reducing the information below between Congress and constituents would be patrician and elitist. Responding to frustrated Congressional staff by limiting the intermediaries to a narrow range of mostly partisan for-profit vendors would represent an interesting and dangerous form of capture.

Both men have a point.

It’s inevitable that open government activists are going to build better tools for the citizens of the United States of America to petition their government and communicate with their elected representatives. But that doesn’t solve the problems Johnson described.

In response, Congress needs to develop the capacity to take in those messages, identify constituents and respond to them in a timely manner.

Contrary to what some activists or dispirited citizens may think, however, congressional leadership is aware of the issue. They just need some help.

Now that open source software is officially permitted in the House of Representatives, perhaps it’s time for the Speaker of the House to invite the public in to the U.S. Capitol and make the second
congressional hackathon the one that ensures that “we the people” are heard amid the electronic noise created by advocacy groups and lobbyists.
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