The Center for Data Innovation spoke with Alex Wirth, co-founder of Quorum, a public affairs software company based in Washington, D.C. Wirth discussed the value of combining data about legislative activity with policymakers’ social media data, as well as the challenges involved in building a business around legislative data.
Joshua New: Quorum bills itself as the “world’s most comprehensive database of legislative information.” What makes it so comprehensive compared to other platforms?
Alex Wirth: With Quorum, we’ve built a tool that tracks not only legislation, but also the dialogue surrounding it. We are the only platform to have press releases, Facebook posts, tweets, email newsletters, and committee documents, from members of Congress and state and local officials. Having all of this information in one database makes it possible to get a complete understanding of what elected officials are saying about an issue.
New: With all this information, Quorum is able to map relationships between policymakers. Could you give an example of this, and explain why it is useful?
Wirth: Quorum’s ability to map relationships between policymakers is a great way to identify unlikely allies. For example, Rep. Charlie Dent, a Republican from Pennsylvania frequently co-sponsors bills with Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a fellow Republican. However, the representative he co-sponsors the second most bills with is Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a Democrat from New York. Using Quorum’s analytics, we can identify the bills both representatives sponsored together and the issues both will work on—for Reps. Dent and Maloney, it’s health.
New: Quorum also has a tool called the Weekly Congressional Productivity Index. How does this work?
Wirth: The Weekly Productivity Index is a snapshot of what’s going on in Capitol Hill. We track productivity by legislative chamber, committees, and top five members of Congress introducing new bills. The goal of it is to share the data we calculate every week more broadly so that Congress can be recognized for the work it is either doing or not doing. For example, at the end of July, Congress hit a 10 year high for legislation introduced at 5,100 pieces of legislation.
New: Quorum is a member of the Congressional Data Coalition, which advocates for greater access to, and improved utility of, information about Congress. What are some of the biggest obstacles for your business in this area?
Wirth: Great question! I recently wrote an op-ed published in The Hill that discussed six ways to improve transparency on Capitol Hill. Some of the obstacles that we’ve encountered is the accessibility of information. For example, every bill has a bill summary when it is listed on Congress.gov. However, these bill summaries are frequently overly technical and do not offer clarity on what the bill does. Additionally, although the House has put committee hearings on YouTube, the Senate has yet to do so. The advantage of Google’s speech to text function helps create transcripts of the hearing that we wouldn’t have otherwise and makes it accessible to those who are hard of hearing.
New: Earlier this year, Quorum released a product for customers in the European Union. How does the availability of legislative data differ in Europe compared to the United States?
Wirth: We have actually found that legislative data for the European Union is more accessible than legislative data in the United States. The EU has made a significant effort to centralize information and make it accessible for build downloads. In Europe, it is possible to get a list of everybody who works for the European Union so you know who to contact for your issue. In the United States this list isn’t available and so people have to pay for resources compiled by people calling offices. Not only does it clog up government with lots of phone calls but it makes it difficult for the public to access this information.