Raleigh, N.C. — Back during the legislative session, a group of students from Reese News Service at UNC's journalism school visited with Laura Leslie and I down at the legislative building. We gave them the nickle tour and tried to give them a flavor of what covering the legislature is like.
Their takeaway -- a pretty accurate one, by the way -- was that legislative process is not always easy to follow, especially for non-wonks who maybe just want to check in on what their lawmakers are doing or brush up on the status of one particular bill.
And they thought technology might help fix the problem.
"We wanted to have a really easy resource for people to go to where they can see just how their legislator is voting and all the bills and votes that are going on," said Colleen McEnaney, a rising junior who worked on the project.
The General Assembly's website, she said, had a lot of information available, "but it's not easily digestible for the average person."
Enter The Roll Call, Reese News' effort to demystify the legislative process. The site re-launched today after spending a couple weeks in a public testing mode.
As described in a post by Tony Mantovani, a programmer on the project, Roll Call scrapes information from the legislature's website and converts it to a more user-friendly format.
"(W)e were inspired by the Domino’s Tracker, which shows the status of your pizza from the moment your order is placed until it goes out for delivery. We built a similar product for tracking bills called the Bill Tracker," Mantovani wrote.
When I first poked around the site in its beta phase, it was still lacking some features. McEnaney said they planned to add a glossary of terms so that the home audience could more easily understand the status of a bill. Also, she said, they would like to add archives of previous sessions.
On first blush, The Roll Call's search engine appears to handle legislation moving through the normal process very well. I had trouble using it to find bills that had been "gutted and amended," a process in which the original content is removed and replaced by something only tangentially related. That may be helped if and when the team expands to search function to look into the text of bills rather than just the title.
As good as the website is now and might be in the future, there's only so much that can be done through automation. Legislative language can be pretty arcane, oddball procedure can obscure actual content and data can't give you the reasons, motivations and stories behind a particular bill.
For example, it can show a bill has been sitting in committee for a long time but it can't tell you if that's because leaders want to kill it or because its language has been put into another bill.
I asked John Clark, the project's executive director and faculty adviser, if his students understood the limitations of working with data alone.
"That's been a discussion and people are aware of it. But they haven't had to grapple with it just yet. That's part of the learning process for the project," Clark said. The Roll Call is launching as the legislative session shuts down.
Staff from Reese News will be working on the project when the General Assembly comes back to town next year and get a chance to see how the website works during an evolving and moving legislative session. It is then, Clark said, that students will really understand that "the data only does get you so far."
McEnaney acknowledged the lack of the human element. She said that The Roll Call could serve as a launching pad or reference for reporters who want to dig deeper into legislation.
"We want to be able to write stories off it too, and refer back to it and link to it in the future," she said.