Congress plans Facebook “hackathon” to boost engagement with public

November 17, 2011

Top legislators on both sides of the aisle in the U.S. House of Representatives said on Thursday they will work with Facebook engineers and independent developers to make it easier for the public to engage with lawmakers and follow the legislative process.

The first-ever Congressional Facebook Developer Hackathon will take place Dec. 7 at the Capitol, bringing together lawmakers, academics and developers to find ways to make Congress more transparent and accessible.

A hackathon, a term coined by computer programmers over a decade ago, generally refers to a meeting where new programs and applications are collaboratively developed.

With the growing influence social media like Facebook and Twitter has in people’s everyday lives, “it is essential that Congress fully incorporate these platforms into its daily operations,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said.

Cantor will host the event along with Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer.

“Americans have a right to petition government, and new online technologies are giving that right exciting new possibilities,” Hoyer said in a statement.

While logistics will not allow for the all-night coding sessions typical of hackathons, the event will look at how legislative data that the House has already made available can be used by developers to build apps the public can easily understand and garner information from.

There will also be discussion groups on topics like ensuring constituents’ correspondence reaches their elected official, improving how legislative information gets to the public and revamping hearings and other events so they are better tailored to social media participation.

Cantor’s office said the hackathon was inspired by a recent trip to Facebook’s headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif. Matt Lira, digital director for Cantor, said the Silicon Valley culture got House leaders thinking about how that type of engineering culture could solve technical problems on the Hill.

The House hopes to entice plenty of engineers, programmers and designers to the hackathon as well as a bipartisan group of lawmakers and Hill staffers.

“Problems that were insurmountable just two years ago are relatively easy to fix today if we can get that magic mixture of engineering talent and institutional knowledge together in the same place,” Lira told Reuters.

The Sunlight Foundation, a watchdog group that promotes open government and follows political spending, said it was encouraging to see the House embrace the developer community.

“But more importantly for Sunlight is that the House make all of its data available online in real time,” said Gabriela Schneider, the group’s communications director.

“And that way, aside from having a hackathon, anyone who wants to build something will have greater access to this data,” she said.

The House prioritized boosting transparency in January, and since then has established new standards for presenting its data online, making it available for developers interested in building applications.

Lira said that even more information about the legislative process including happenings on the floor and at the committee level will be available to the public in the near future.

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