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Alexa, What’s Going on in the House of Representatives?

Project would allow data queries from a smart speaker

When Donald Trump delivers his State of the Union, it will be in a House chamber filled with 2020 presidential rivals. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
When Donald Trump delivers his State of the Union, it will be in a House chamber filled with 2020 presidential rivals. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

What’s the quickest way to find out whether the House is in session? What committee hearings are scheduled? The name of a district’s congressional representative?

Soon, you might be able to ask Alexa.

A project in the House Clerk’s office would make it as easy to get information about Congress from a voice-activated smart speaker as it is to ask about the weather.

“This data should be usable and user-friendly,” said Sean Conaghan, a clerk’s office employee who demonstrated a pilot program Thursday at a conference devoted to data transparency in Congress.

The clerk’s office already stockpiles information on the internet, but much of it is in formats like JSON and XML that are not in general use. “We were thinking, how could we make this more publicly available and of more interest to the public?” he said.

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Conaghan said the project started as a joke among colleagues. Wouldn’t it be great, they thought, if they could find out whether they could wear jeans to work — frowned upon when Congress is in session — as they hit their snooze buttons in the morning.  

Turns out, a lot of people thought the same thing. A version he and his co-workers created as an internal team-building exercise has sparked interest among other offices, bringing with it the possibility that the project might expand and eventually be introduced to the public on an array of platforms including the popular Amazon service, he said. 

Conaghan demonstrated the potential from the podium.

He asked his device, “Alexa, ask US House, is the House in session today.” The anodyne, female voice responded: “the House is currently in session. The last action is, the speaker announced that the House will now recess.” And the crowd of about 100 burst into enthusiastic applause.

Granted, these were people who had signed up for eight hours of presentations about “how agencies use technology well and how they can use it better in the future.”

But Conaghan said he was soliciting ideas for features that would make the program useful for a wider audience.

Such an embrace of new technology would be unusual on the Hill, but it’s not unheard of.  Another decision in the House — the post-9-11 distribution of BlackBerries to all member offices — is widely considered to have sparked the smartphone revolution in Washington.

Whether the Alexa project will become such a game-changer remains to be seen, but there is a clear market. More than 43 million people in the United States own a smart speaker, according to NPR’s smart audio report—a count that may soon eclipse the number of people who could name their local representative.

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