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Twitter bot now tracking Wikipedia edits in legislature

Posted July 15, 2014

@NCGAEdits Twitter bot

— File this under "could be interesting."

Last week, a few civic-minded coders built a tool to track anonymous edits to Wikipedia pages by congressional staffers. The result was @congressedits, a Twitter "bot" that tracks when someone using an official House or Senate Internet connection logs on to the crowdsourced encyclopedia and makes a change.

Like many open-source projects, the creators of @congressedits released all of their code and made it easy for other enterprising transparency advocates to launch versions to track Wikipedia action for their own government bodies. Countries from Canada to South Africa already have.

This week, WRAL News followed suit.

By following @NCGAEdits, Twitter users can now see anonymous edits originating from the networks at the General Assembly.

There is a catch. North Carolina offers open, free WiFi within the legislative complex, so @NCGAEdits will specify whether the edit came from a user of the legislative complex's hard-wired network, which is available only to lawmakers and staff, or the public WiFi, accessible by General Assembly staff as well as media, lobbyists and other visitors.

The bots certainly aren't the first attempts to help the public peer behind the curtain of the political process. Politwoops, for example, tracks and archives deleted tweets from U.S. politicians. On the state level, a project by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill students called Capitol Hound transcribes the audio from recorded sessions of the General Assembly, storing them in a database that paid subscribers can easily search.

It's unclear at this point what effect these tools will truly have on how average voters track the actions of their public officials. The @NCGAEdits account has tweeted only once as a test, and someone already gamed @congressedits days after its launch to levy critique at U.S. House Republicans. The lack of specificity also makes it pretty much impossible to tie any edit, however controversial, to an actual person.

But much like Congress, a lot of what state legislators and their staffers do on a regular basis is hard for members of the public to see, even when those actions have a huge impact on the lives of North Carolina residents.

In a citizen legislature like North Carolina's, it's important to understand the origins of the research, arguments and talking points lawmakers use to craft policy and shape public sentiment.

A Twitter account won't fix the transparency problem, but the project may give glimpses – delivered automatically and in real-time – that add just a little to the public understanding of Jones Street. It might help spot conflicts of interest or emerging controversy. Maybe it will help people ask better questions.

Then again, it might not end up being interesting at all. The only way to know is to give it a try.

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