Google's Civic Information API Now Connects Voters, Elected Officials

New capabilities in the Google Civic Information API are designed to let developers directly connect voters to federal, state and local leaders.

Google's Civic information API, which developers have used to create helpful apps so that voters can easily find their polling places, is now gaining new capabilities that will allow developers to directly connect voters to their elected leaders.

The expanded capabilities were outlined by Jonathan Tomer, a Google software engineer, in a Nov. 19 post on the Google Developers Blog.

"Many applications track and map governmental data, but few help their users identify the relevant local public officials," wrote Tomer. "Too often, local problems are divorced from the government institutions designed to help. Today, we're launching new functionality in the Google Civic Information API that lets developers connect constituents to their federal, state, county and municipal elected officials—right down to the city council district."

In November 2012, the Civic Information API was also being used by developers to help people affected by Superstorm Sandy find updated polling locations using Short Message Service (SMS) after the storm decimated their neighborhoods.

The latest additions to the Civic information API will help support developers who want to build functions for residents that go beyond elections so that they can better connect with their civic leaders, wrote Tomer.

"In addition to elected representatives, the API also returns your political jurisdictions using Open Civic Data Identifiers," he wrote. "We worked with the Sunlight Foundation and other civic technology groups to create this new open standard to make it easier for developers to combine the Civic Information API with their data sets. For example, once you look up districts and representatives in the Civic Information API, you can match the districts up to historical election results published by Open Elections."

To build apps with the improved API, developers can start with the API's documentation and also try out a "Map Your Reps" sample application to see some of the added capabilities, wrote Tomer.

Using the improved API, according to Tomer, has added a new Decision Makers feature "which allows users to direct a petition to their elected representative and lists that petition publicly on the representative's profile page. As a result, the leader has better insight into the issues being discussed in their districts, and a new channel to respond to constituents."

A PopVox app using the improved API "helps users share their opinions on bills with their congressional representatives in a meaningful format," wrote Tomer. "PopVox uses the API to connect the user to the correct Congressional District. Because PopVox verifies that users are real constituents, the opinions shared with elected officials have more impact on the political process."

In the future, Google hopes to "expand beyond U.S. elected representatives and elections to other data types and places," he wrote. "This release is an investment in making the world's civic data universally accessible and useful. We'll continue to work with civic developers who are tackling real-world challenges. Together, we can build new tools to improve civic life for everyone."

In January, Google donated $3.7 million to two organizations that are working to make government data more open, available and transparent to citizens in the United States and around the world, including the Sunlight Foundation, which recently has been helping with the new Civic Information API. awarded $2.1 million to the nonprofit, nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation, and $1.6 million to mySociety, a U.K.-based group.

Google has been very active in disseminating information about elections, polling places and other civic information in the United States in the last few years.

In October 2012, Google released a new Voter Information Tool Website to help voters find information about just about everything they need to know about the last year's general elections in the United States. The site included information about where voters could register, where they could cast their ballots and about the candidates on the ballots. The tool allowed users to enter their addresses to find information on their polling places, early voting locations, ballot information with links to candidates' social media sites, and voting rules and requirements in their voting districts.

Google also in October 2012 created the ability for online users to hold virtual presidential debate-watching parties that allowed them to "watch" one of the debates between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney inside a Google+ Hangout where their friends could also gather.

The first 2012 presidential and vice presidential debates were both streamed live on network television as well as online, including on YouTube's Election Hub site.

The virtual debate-watching parties came just two months after YouTube unveiled its YouTube Elections Hub, where voters could visit to view streaming video of the candidates and races through Election Day on Nov. 6, 2012. The site covered streaming video of both the Republican and Democratic national conventions and included videos of a wide range of political events after the conventions.