Behind the scenes: Capitol Hound launch

May 21 2014

It’s time to launch Capitol Hound. Months of research have gone into the project, and as a member of the Capitol Hound team, I’m here to tell you what it’s like to take a service from theory to real-life, paying customers.

To get you up to speed, Capitol Hound is a searchable audio archive and alert system for N.C. General Assembly floor sessions and committee meetings. Using transcription services, Capitol Hound makes hours of audio recordings from the General Assembly searchable by quote, allowing users to search for any phrase that may have been spoken in a General Assembly session. Capitol Hound sends user-identified keyword alerts when a user’s selected subject is mentioned in the legislature.

Day 1: Capitol Hound takes a bite out of the LEG.

An off-limits red velvet staircase, buzzing fluorescent lights, children walking in lines down the hall, a lone pay phone.

While this may sound like the beginning of a zombie apocalypse movie, it actually describes the interior of the North Carolina legislature. On our first full day of the summer’s work on Capitol Hound, we dove straight into where the action happens: 16 West Jones St, Raleigh, N.C. Completed in 1963, the legislative building houses the offices of state representatives, both the senate and house chambers, along with a press room. At any moment I expected Don Draper to walk out his office and offer me a drink. In typical Mad Men fashion, we were met with smiling secretaries.

Elementary school children toured the place like it was a museum, not a place of modern policy-making. Upon walking into the hanging-plant/fountain corridors, we already knew Capitol Hound would have so much to offer this place.

John Frank, a state political reporter from the News & Observer, was kind enough to meet us and give us a tour of the legislative building along with some committee rooms that we record for the service.

Day 5: Stress seeps into the Capitol Hound machine.
When presented with a Reese News Lab stress ball in the shape of a science beaker, Kris promptly ripped hers to shreds.

As a team, we’ve organized all of the contacts and everyday work through the list of potential subscribers to Capitol Hound. Hrisanthi Kroi, Samantha Harrington and I have worked full-time on the project. We’re on the phone mostly, selling to lobbyists and politicians along with news and non-profit organizations. We also do our fair share of trolling friends and followers about Capitol Hound on social media.

Testing has gone well. We’re mainly trying to break the site, search for bugs and figure out alternate ways to run the service. This is so that if, God forbid, something goes wrong our method, we’ll have another way of getting the transcripts up on the site for subscribers for the next day.

If there was a moment at which I fully realized the importance of our job, it may have been when a Norwegian open government blogger retweeted one of my shameless Capitol Hound plugs. Until last year, the North Carolina legislature almost never made national headlines, let alone international news. But there we were, featured on #OpenData Daily, a social media dashboard with articles, videos and tweets in every language under the sun.

But this is one instance of many in my first week of working at Capitol Hound in which someone expressed genuine interest and appreciation in the potential for this service.

A recent Democratic primary winner seemed overjoyed that he could track specific discussions that his Republican opponent participated in this upcoming session.

A lobbyist said she was excited about the possibility to track her specific field of advocacy. I’m excited to see what this will offer the General Assembly, as well as what I will learn from working on a high-energy, vital service.

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