Open Congress, Just a Call Away (Brought to You by the Sunlight Foundation)

Posted by KatrinVerclas on Jun 11, 2012

The Sunlight Foundation, always pushing the envelop on tech and open government in the United States and increasingly worldwide, launched a new service today:  Call to Congress.  The number 1-888-907-6886 (tol-free in the US) allows anyone to learn about how a lawmaker is voting on bills and raising their money for re-election. As the announcement states:  "Being connected with your lawmakers' Capitol Hill offices and getting details on legilsation is now as easy as ordering pizza..." 

The service is essentially an interactive-voice responce system that allows a user to navigate a menu tree to search a member of Congress by postal code.  Lawmakers can add their biography, their top campaign donors, recent votes and allows a caller to be transferred directly to the Reprentative's office.  The service also provides bills currently under consideration in both the House and the Senate, including upcoming votes. The service is available in English and Spanish with the goal of bridging the online/mobile divide increasingly common in the US where especially ethnic and lingual minorities access the web via their mobile devices.  Call to Congres is at its core powered by Twilio, a cloud communications API. Technically, the Sunlight team reports, is Twilio, a cloud communications API. More technical details about the service are on this blog post but in essence, here is how it works (paraphrasing the post mentioned)

  • Twilio can generate dynamic responses that are spoken back to the user using Twilio's text-to-speech feature. We can have recordings of a spoken script play for static content or even play music, if we had the need. We can even forward phone calls so that users can be connected directly to the office of their representative without having to write down the phone number and dial the call. (Incidentally, Twilio also has SMS features that, while not used on this project, are used on our other new service, Scout.)
  • To create multi-lingual content, each bit of text used in the application is run through a series of steps to determine the proper response. All of the text is written in English in the code, but is internationalized by creating an MD5 hash of the text, determining the response language, checking for a cached translated copy of the text if it is not in English, generating a translated copy of the text using the Google Translate API, generating an audio file name based on the MD5 hash and a slugged chunk of the text, doing a HEAD request to S3 to see if an audio file exists for the chunk of text, responding either with a Twilio Say command using the translated chunk of text or a Play command with the S3 URL of the audio file, if one exists.
  • Aall of the features on Call to Congress are powered by existing Sunlight APIs: Member lookup by ZIP code and contact information is powered by the Congress API, bill information comes from the Real Time Congress API, and campaign contributions and member biographies are provided by the Influence Explorer API.
  • Finally, Sunlight usesTurboVote for the API that allows the to provide information about local election offices.

Very smartly, Sunlight leverages the "logic that combines the Twilio, Google Translate, and Sunlight APIs into a single application."  Congrats on the launch, and if you are a United States voter, go check it out by calling 1-888-907-6886 in the US.

Open Congress, Just a Call Away (Brought to You by the Sunlight Foundation) data sheet 6209 Views
Countries: United States

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