Capitol Hound Q&A with C. Felix Harvey Award winners

Jan 29 2015

This week I had the opportunity to sit down with John Clark, the Executive Director of Reese News Lab, and Sara Peach, the Associate Director of Reese News Lab, to discuss Capitol Hound. Capitol Hound is a searchable transcription database of the North Carolina General Assembly. The product launched during the 2014 legislative short session and is back up and running for the 2015 long session. In January, John and Sara were awarded the the C. Felix Harvey Award to Advance Institutional Priorities, which recognizes faculty scholarship that focuses on innovation.

I sat down with them to learn more about the challenges of running Capitol Hound and the impact that the award will have on the project. For example, the award will allow the Reese News Lab to offer the Capitol Hound service to state media organizations without charge.

Reese News Lab Directors. Photo credit: Morgan Ellis

Reese News Lab directors. Photo credit: Morgan Ellis

Q: Why did the Lab decide to tackle transparency in government in the summer of 2013?

Sara: As a lab we often like to focus on politics because we think, as a public university, it is really important to look at tools that can help people better understand what politicians are doing and the decisions that they are making.

Q: Why did you decide to take this experiment forward after it was pitched during the Lab’s first summer Pitch Day in 2013?

Sara: We thought it would work!

John: There was a hint of viability to it.

Sara: The students found that there were a lot of different people who said they were really interested in it and said that they would pay for it. It is also a small enough project that we felt we could realistically launch it in the Lab.

Q: How did it go when you all launched the product for the North Carolina General Assembly short session that began last May?

John: Well, the short session was long. It went fine. It went longer than we thought. It went much longer than anyone thought.

Sara: We had all these dreams and theoretical ideas about how it would work. And what we found out was that the system that we thought in theory would work and transcribe did work and we found out that people were willing to buy it.

Q: What was the hardest part about launching?

John: Selling. Selling is the hardest part about anything.

Sara: Well, I’m going to steal something from Sam. Samantha Harrington, one of the students who worked on Capitol Hound during the short session, said, “It’s hard to imagine when you have this wonderful product that even if it is the most amazing thing ever, people are not just going to line up to buy it. You have to work hard to get somebody to buy it.”

Q: Why did you all decide to apply for the Harvey Award?

John: The award allows us to produce the transcripts in a little bit of a better way– more effective, more timely, and more scalable to take it to other states. The other aspect of it was providing the service for free to the states’ watchdogs. We do go after challenges about transparency in government, so let’s put in the hands of the people who are being the watchdogs. The award allows us to do both of those things. The notion of giving it away to the media organizations allows us to get user feedback and also to put the tools in the hands of the people responsible for keeping an eye on the elected officials.

Q: What are the main ways that Capitol Hound is different in this long session than it was in the short session?

John: Well since it is longer, we will have to go through three different sets of students [due to the academic calendar]. The logistics will be kind of interesting. We also have new leadership in the state legislature—the speaker of the House is new. You know, new rules, it’s a brand-new legislature. We have even seen Representative Lewis tweet that they may get more rooms wired for sound. It would be great for us because we could get more audio. In terms of technology, the way we get transcripts will be different. The new service will be tested in the wild. We are pretty confident that it will work, but we never know the challenges that could come up.

Q: Have you gotten any positive feedback about how Capitol Hound has helped people in the community?

Sara: We have heard from one of our subscribers who is a journalist that sometimes she cannot be in every meeting at once because they often happen simultaneously. So it is a tool for verifying her reporting as well as making sure she doesn’t miss anything.

John: It is important to note to anyone who would use or subscribe to Capitol Hound that it is a tool that is only as good as you use it.

Q: What has been the most difficult about launching the project in the Lab? Do you see differences with students launching it versus a normal start up?

John: Sales. Honestly, it is actually true anyway. You know my experience watching this in the summer unfold, it really isn’t any different than seeing it outside of a University. The same challenges happen regardless. You still have to sell it. You still have to provide customer support. You still actually have to do it.

Q: What do you all see as the most rewarding part of launching and running Capitol Hound?

Sara: I think it is really, really exciting to see an idea that was just an idea become a real thing that people are using so that they can do their jobs better. There are so many different students that have had the opportunity to work on it and there have been so many contributions that it really has been a collaborative thing. It has been really exciting to see it grow up.

John: Two-fold: One, that you can actually take a journalistic product focused on transparency in government and actually find an interesting way to make money to fund itself. That is fun to be able to talk about to anyone who, if you talk to anyone about transparency in government, would most likely say, “Let’s put another reporter in the legislature.” Two, it is watching everyone work on it. It’s fun to work with people who have not done something like this before and actually seeing what its like and what is really there. It is not as glamorous as people thought it is. It is always fun to work with people to do something new and to do something new that is continuing to move forward.

Q: What do you see as the future of Capitol Hound?

Sara: During the pilot launch, we were approached by media organizations in different states who wanted to run Capitol Hound for their own legislations. In a perfect world, this kind of tool would eventually be available in all fifty states and in Washington, D.C.

John: The business aspect of it—everywhere. The notion of having a tool that could be put in every state that allows people to keep an eye on their legislature. Even starting with North Carolina in the next year or two, the notion of having a tool in every media organization that is helping them serve their constituents better. I mean in a way that has never been done before, that’s awesome! But I do think it is in the realm of the possibility that Capitol Hound could be in multiple states. Then again, we shouldn’t set our sights any lower than everywhere.

Q: Where did the dog and the name come from?

John: The state dog of North Carolina is the plott hound.

We voted. It was this really long convoluted process to try to find a name that would work. The name is state- and legislature-agnostic. And the hound is the idea that it is searching for something that is not out in the open.

To learn more about Capitol Hound or sign up to receive more information, go to www.capitolhound.org.


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