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League of Women Voters launches 'The Alabama Channel' to boost civic engagement

This story was originally published by AL.com.

People who want to learn more about how state lawmakers make decisions about education, criminal justice, taxes, health care, and other issues have a new way to stay informed.

The Alabama Channel, a website created by the League of Women Voters of Alabama Education Fund, went live this week.

The Alabama Channel will carry the live videos of House and Senate debates and committee meetings that the Legislature streams on its website. While those are already available to the public via the Legislature’s website, the Alabama Channel will record and archive them to allow people who can’t watch live to catch them later. The Legislature does not provide that archiving service.

In addition, The Alabama Channel has a search tool to zero in on specific bills or pertinent points in the videos of floor debates and committee meetings. Access to the video archives and other information is free.

Tara Bailey, an LWVAL member from Madison, spearheaded The Alabama Channel project after leading a similar effort a few years ago to bring more public access to the local government meetings in Madison.

“We realized that our city council meetings were only being live streamed,” Bailey said. “They were not being archived and recorded. And so we felt to increase civic engagement, people need to see what their elected leaders are saying during council meetings and really any government meetings.”

Bailey started a nonprofit, “I Vote Madison,” that archived the videos of the meetings in Madison. The Madison City Council has since started its own archives.

“We had been doing that for a year or so when I realized the same situation was happening with our Legislature,” said Bailey, who has a degree in graphic design and has spent most of her career in marketing. “Their meetings were only being live streamed and they were not being archived and recorded for the public, which was an accessibility issue for people who were not able to sit through seven hours of footage. They have day jobs. Everybody’s busy.”

Bailey took her idea to Kathy Jones, president of the LWVAL, who recognized it as a way to boost civic engagement.

“Transparency in government is foundational to everything that happens in our government at the local, state and federal level,” Jones said. “So this is an example of what Alabamians should expect to be able to go in and understand and see what’s happening and get the big picture. So we’re hoping that this is something that becomes useful to everyone across Alabama.”

The LWVAL Education Fund obtained a Making Democracy Work Grant from the national League of Women Voters to support the initiative. Bailey researched how legislatures in other states archive their proceedings and connected with a company called Open Media that worked with the state of Colorado.

“We had a nice conversation about what we were trying to do in Alabama and loved their platform,” Bailey said. “And they really liked what we were doing and what we were trying to do. So they allowed the use of their software to us in order to bring this to Alabama.”

Bailey said The Alabama Channel will carry all the live streams from the Legislature’s website, called Alison. Alison livestreams include the House and Senate floor debates and many, but not all, legislative committee meetings. The Alabama Channel will carry them on the main website and on its Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter pages. The archives, with the transcript search tool, will be stored on the main website.

“We really feel like it can help build civic engagement,” Jones said. “People can actually see what their legislators are doing.”

Jones said she believes The Alabama Channel will help media coverage of the Legislature. She said the LWVAL has talked to the state archives department about preserving the videos for historical purposes.

The Legislature is not in session now and won’t meet again until an organizational session that starts on Jan. 10. Next year’s regular session starts in March.

The LWVAL met with the the top staffers at the Legislature about The Alabama Channel project.

“We wanted to be very transparent about what we were doing,” Bailey said. “They did confirm that the livestream coming from Alison is public domain. We have talked to our own legal team to make sure we are doing everything correctly.”

Bailey said Alabama is one of only four states where the legislature does not record and archive its meetings, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

John Treadwell, acting clerk of the Alabama House, said there have been discussions about the Legislature archiving the videos but no decision has been made. The Legislature expanded its use of live streams on Alison when access to the State House was limited during the COVID-19 pandemic. He said cost is one factor to consider in archiving the meetings.

“We want to have a comprehensive plan of how that would work and how that would be stored, and picking and choosing between some committee meetings and not others, that’s part of the process,” Treadwell said. “And we also want to get member feedback on that as well, how that would work and how that would be searchable and how that would be displayed on the website. And we just haven’t gotten to that point yet.”

As for The Alabama Channel’s archives, Treadwell said it is important to note that YouTube’s automated process that transcribes the videos is prone to errors and that the transcriptions are not official records.

“There are just little concerns there,” Treadwell said. “But overall I think the intent is good to provide the public with access to those proceedings.”

Bailey points out that The Alabama Channel carries a disclaimer that it is a project of the League of Women Voters of Alabama Education Fund and is not affiliated with Alabama’s state government. It also carries a note that the videos are transcribed using YouTube’s automatic tool and may not be 100 percent accurate.

Bailey believes the ability to use the search tool to pinpoint portions of the videos about specific bills or topics will be a great benefit for people who want to be engaged in government but have limited time.

For example, if a user enters “divisive concepts” in the search bar, the tool searches the transcriptions of the videos to pull up the links that take the user to the debates about the bill related to critical race theory that generated heated debate in the State House this year.

“You not only get to hear exactly what was said, you are also able to share through our site,” Bailey said. “And that’s a really big deal. You can share those clips on Facebook, on your Twitter page, or even you can embed them into your own website.”

“It is free for everybody and this information is really for everyone,” she said. “And our main goal is to educate voters on what’s happening down in Montgomery and give them access that they haven’t had before.”

Click Here to Learn More About The Alabama Channel