How two cool new apps could make democracy more transparent

Two new platforms: Meerkat and Periscope. Meerkat, Periscope , CC BY-SA

Open government supporters may have just found two new allies. They happen to be mobile apps.

Two new digital innovations – Meerkat and Periscope – could help to reduce citizen barriers to accessing information and events, making them the latest tool for furthering public participation in civic affairs.

Meerkat and Periscope are particularly effective because of their ability to deliver real-time video integrated with social media – a highly shareable combination. Northeastern University journalist professor Jeff Howe says in The Times of India: these platforms could “become a powerful tool for [citizen] reporters and change the way people get news.”

Television news outlets, which employ staff to huddle around police scanners ready to dispatch a camera crew at the first sign of a breaking story, could find themselves scooped by local residents already on the scene armed with nothing more than a mobile phone.

It is mobile technology’s shake-up of traditional structures that has piqued my interest. Specifically, my research has focused on the effect of citizen participation via digital means on government decision-making.

The two platforms are bedazzling the tech crowd

Meerkat and Periscope already have the technology community in a tizzy.

Although video streaming has been around for some time, these apps rocketed to popularity in recent months mostly due to their full integration with the popular social media platform Twitter.

The debate among the tech crowd is whether both apps can exist in the same space.

Meerkat was first out of the box, buoyed by a coming-out party at the South by Southwest festival in March 2015. Soon after, Twitter bought out a nascent Meerkat competitor named Periscope for US$86 million in an attempt to keep users from leaving a company-owned platform for live-streaming services.

Despite predictions of the death of Meerkat, the competition continues.

The potential for greater transparency

The debate over market share, however, has drowned out more important news about these platforms’ democratizing effects.

Meerkat and Periscope are already changing political campaigns and their coverage. For example, Periscope was used to capture a rare unscripted moment by Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

Michael Calderone, the senior media reporter for The Huffington Post, insists “this technology could allow 2016 campaigns to more easily go around the political press” to speak with voters. In a crowded Republican field vying for limited air time in the mainstream press, use of these apps appears to be a strategy born out of necessity rather than avoidance.

But the potential for transparency extends well beyond campaign politics.

Using these technologies, any single public official or citizen could live-stream a public meeting, allowing interested citizens to participate remotely. Digital participants could even ask questions or provide feedback in real time.

Broadcasting and capturing video of public proceedings has long been a priority for open-government supporters. Remote viewing options for citizens eliminate significant time and physical barriers posed by traditional public meetings.

Public agencies have, however, cited roadblocks to opening up different types of proceedings to public viewing. The city council in Norfolk, Virginia, initially resisted broadcasting some of its meetings, citing prohibitive costs. Now, with broadcasting capabilities in the hands of any citizen with a smartphone, government bodies will be forced to reevaluate traditional broadcast policies and operations.

So what’s in your fridge?

Currently, the live streaming offered on Meerkat or Periscope tends toward the mundane or even inane. On a recent Sunday morning, for example, the featured streams on Periscope included a woman belting out a tune in Spanish, two kids playing a video game, and a personal bike tour of a park in Rome. On Meerkat, there was a cooking demo sponsored by MasterCard, a rocking church service and the brief “show us what’s in your fridge” trend.

Such uses create an easy out for heads of public agencies, who can dismiss the new technology as trivial or not serious.

After all, if the apps are dominated by users interested in fridge views, meaningful citizen engagement through these apps is unlikely to receive traction – that’s how the argument goes.

That was also the attitude about Facebook – until public agencies starting creating their own Facebook pages.

Texas takes up the transparency issue

State governments continually grapple with the issue of transparency for citizens. If a recent proposal in Texas wins final legislative approval, the state will take a more explicit approach.

The Texas House of Representatives passed a bill that requires large public bodies to video record their board meetings and post them online for greater transparency. The Texas bill carves out an exemption for smaller public bodies, such as school districts with fewer than 10,000 students.

A spokesperson for the Dallas Area Rapid Transit system, which would be subject to the measure upon full approval, was quoted as saying “it would cost $50,000 to get the video recordings going and then $100,000 annually after that to comply with the bill.”

Even before the advent of Meerkat and Periscope, these steep estimates would have been highly questionable, given the availability of video cameras and YouTube. Today these estimates ring hollow. Any Texas official with a smartphone and data plan can live-stream public meetings and, using Meerkat’s #katch function, save videos indefinitely on YouTube and be compliant with the law. Further, the apps meet the “reasonable quality” standard adopted by the Texas House.

Thus, there is no reason for Texas to limit the proposed bill to large agencies. Establishing a threshold creates a false argument over cost of compliance and organizational capacity. The only question should be whether officials have access to smartphones.

Unless officials in Texas public agencies can prove they are outside the 64% of Americans who own smartphones, they should take advantage of Meerkat and Periscope to usher in a new era of transparency.

The intent of the Texas law is noble, and other states should follow their lead.

States should not only strengthen requirements for transparency in public meetings, but clarify the rights of citizens to record and broadcast their own video.