N2Y3Con: Ask Your Lawmaker, Volunteer Now, CorpWatch

rachel.weidinger's picture

This is Rachel Weidinger of Common Knowledge liveblogging the Ask Your Lawmaker, Volunteer Now, CorpWatch project session.

[Now updated with corrections from Ian at Corpwatch. Thanks Ian!]

Project 1: Volunteer Now! By Mobile Phone

Inspired by the enthusiasm of Marnie's MashUp Challenge video. People don't have all day to volunteer On Android platform, looking for someone to code iPhone app. Wife volunteers for Planned Parenthood. They're looking for people to canvas against parental notification law. What if they can send you a training video, then link you to an online form that you can use to canvass?

How can this app work in tandem with Volunteer Match's existing program? Talking to them already/ Thinking of iDidGood widget, that tracks what you've done, shares with your social network.

Sustainability: Maybe person posting ask pays 99 cents, like iTunes? Maybe NPOs or corporations pay.

What resources do they need? Looking for iPhone developer, marketing plan.

Market for volunteerism is untapped. Being done on the cheap, looking for partners and data.

Q/Daniel Ben Horin: There is the assumption of desire for this service. What is your basis of thinking that there is a desire for this?

A: By show of hands, how many people in the room would give 15-30 minutes of your time, volunteering at your level of expertise. [30-50% of the room raised their hands] Harry Potter fanclubs example, SXSW…people are killing time in crazy ways, looking for meaning.

Q: Clarifying: Volunteer opportunities would come from partners?

A: Yes.

Someone on team has completed their Master's thesis on mobile volunteerism.

Q/ AgentHandy: CMS on backend, or on shoulders of the org?

A: Pieces in place, Drupal integration with Salesforce. Once you have app, icon is on your deck every time you pick it up. Could create infrastructure for disaster response.

Moderator comment: Amazon.com had the infrastructure in 9/11, helped out a lot.

Project 2: Corpwatch/ Ian, Project Manager

Traditionally lone wolf investigative reports on corporations, did expose on Nike's sweatshops in Vietnam. Not enough impact, hired freelancers in one-offs. Now they're creating Crocodyl.org, a corporate malfeasance wiki, allowing citizen journalists to cover the same issues they were once using freelancers to cover. [Alternately, Ian describes this as a tool for "educating citizen journalists to engage in corporate research, in addition to CorpWatch's work."]



Mashup is third iteration of project, mashup proposes to supplement existing with SEC mandatory reporting requirements (lawsuits, etc). Unless you're a seasoned corporate researcher it's not accessible. Mashup will link subsidiaries to parent companies to see who is at the top of the food chain.


Now? Have a basic structure. Need RDF data manipulators, flash animators, SPARQL queries.

Q: Why is this more doable now than 5-10 years ago?

A: Technology. Need to translate data into machine readable format. Past reporting was all on paper, we're filling the gap between arcane publishing, enabling pushing to a broader audience.

Q: This info is useful to reporters, who else cares?

A: Labor orgs, anyone launching investigation on a corporation. Data now very difficult to access.

Q: How will you address the nich-y-ness of the usefulness?

A: No plans around that now, do you have any ideas? {Further thoughts from Ian:"...on second thought, this will be part of our outreach plan moving forward, this question has really got me thinking about how we can further educate citizens about corporate research. Everyone needs to know how to do basic corporate research to participate in a democracy."]

Q: How often doe the EDGAR database get updated?

A: We have a screen scraper tool that will run updates 1x/ month.

Q: Challenge about if 1x/ month enough?

A: Noted, this feedback is useful.

Capital News Connection

Project 3: Ask A Lawmaker

[Note from Rachel....First: More info, with corrections from Melinda Wittstock.   I'll integrate this later, but for now her email is in italics, my liveblogging follows in plain old text.]  


Ask Your Lawmaker is operated by Capitol News Connection, which supplies 2 million listeners on 200+ public radio stations with news and feature reporting from Congress all from the local perspective. That is news made relevant to local audiences … local impacts of national legislation, and bringing local issues to national attention. We are NOT NPR…although we supply NPR-affiliated stations.

Making politics relevant and bringing issues of local concern to national attention is something we already do! And what makes this likely to succeed is that we have partnerships with all these stations that run AYL content for broadcast as well as on their websites, and promote the widget on air. The AYL widget is now on more than 800 sites on public radio and PBS, as well as blogs.

AYL is building on something our award-winning journalists do all day…for our stations…which is track down lawmakers and get user questions answered.

What we want to do is to make the widget go truly viral beyond public radio and aggregate many more voices around questions…with enhanced customization options and social networking functionality.


  • Ways to ensure users can "truth squad" lawmaker answers obtained by our journalists … sharing answers, evaluating them, etc
  • Means to collaborate to create new user-generated content around answers
  • APIs to inform user questions
  • Enhanced widget customization views by lawmaker, user id (ie my questions, my answers), as well as by issue and state
  • Create AYL for Town Halls and State Capitols

 [And back to liveblogging]

Old days, asking questions for people who can't.

Wants to


Make politics relevant to people's local lives


Take local issues national

Been doing that for NPR, holding power to account. Wondered how we could apply this to the web: allow citizens to hold power of accredited reporters, vote on most popular, ask question with a mike, ask the follow-up until they answer. Auidio uploaded back in real time to widget, allow comments and sharing. Widget on 800 public radio sites.

Two things are really encouraging. 1. The questions are really smart…even I journalists have a hard time admitting that. It's influencing out journalism. To take it to the next level add more customization, now by topic or state. They want to add more, including user identity to increase virality, and the ability for lawmakers to add the widget to their sites. Want to allow citizens to collaborate on Qs and As, building a massive feedback loop. Want to allow users to upload answers they've asked of their lawmakers at home, audio or video.

Needs: Drupal, Flash, usability experts who can monetize the use of widgets (subscription, whitelabel, etc, leveraging relationship with public radio)

Q: Intrigued by impact, strikes me that the impact of aggregating people's concerns in one question. Disempowering individuals by reducing importance of direct action?

A: Politicians are not spending a lot of 1:1 time with people. Power in asking questions that come from 900 or 10K askers. Originally keywords helped aggregate similar questions. When asking, you can specify who, exactly, you want to ask…KY delegation, specific lawmaker, specific legislation, etc. we definitely don't want to prevent people from speaking to their specific lawmakers.

Q: With better questions, are you getting better answers?

A: Yes, because we can ask follow up questions. It's a matter of journalistic pride.

Q/ Isaac for Oregon: Online/ offline coalition helped gather letters. Senator asked were letter from district, were they even relevant because session almost over? Is this redundant? Is it relevant if it takes it out of the politician's base?

A: Content, in and of itself is valuable, viral feedback in community is valuable. Citizen answers can result in big stories. News urgency? Trying to create a sense of urgency now. Two types of questions: 1. Open ended questions relevant time. 2. Legislation-related questions. Part of this is getting it in the arena of news, giving citizens the power to say what the news is.

(Rachel here: standard liveblogging disclaimers apply. I was typing with one hand, the wireless was glitchy, and this was the last session of the day...sometimes my mind wandered directly to cocktails.)