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How Congress Turns Citizens’ Voices Into Data Points

How Congress Turns Citizens’ Voices Into Data Points

Samantha McDonald

Politics, Americas

Answering constituents in congressional offices often involves tabulating comments in a database.

Big technology companies like Amazon, Facebook and Google aren’t the only ones facing huge political concerns about using citizen data: So is Congress. Reports by congressional researchers over the last decade describe an outdated communication system that is struggling to address an overwhelming rise in citizen contact.

Every day, thousands of people contact their senators and representatives. Their intentions – protesting or supporting a politician or legislative proposal, seeking assistance with the federal bureaucracy or expressing their opinions about current affairs – vary as widely as their means of communication, which include phones, written letters, emails, in-person meetings, town halls, faxes and social media messages.

The Congressional Management Foundation suggests that most congressional offices saw constituent contact double – or even increase eight-fold – from 2002 to 2010. Current staffers say the numbers have climbed even higher since then. Congressional staffers spend hours listening, reading, collecting and organizing all this information. All of it ends up going into databases in their offices.

As a scholar of technology use in Congress, I’ve interviewed more than 50 staffers in more than 40 congressional offices. I’ve observed that advancements in computer technology are changing how Congress handles citizen communication and uses the data collected from those conversations to represent citizens – for better and for worse.

An Overloaded System

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