A project of the Participatory Politics Foundation—a non-profit organization with a mission to increase civic engagement—AskThem.io is an online open-source platform for question-and-answer with U.S. public figures and any verified Twitter accounts.
Problems and Purpose
AskThem.io was developed as a forum for online public dialogue and continual connection with government representatives. The AskThem platform allows residents of the United States to search for federal and state representatives based on their locations. Users in most major cities can also access information on municipal officials and candidates. AskThem.io's data sources offer the largest coverage of mayors, county government officials, and city council members of any open-source website .
The main purpose of AskThem.io is to connect citizens with their representatives in government, improving government transparency and civic engagement. The platform gives any resident of the United States the ability to ask questions of officials registered on the site .
Origins and Development
AskThem is a non-partisan project of the Participatory Politics Foundation, a "501(c)3 non-profit organization with a mission to increase civic engagement" . From 2007 through 2013, PPF created and operated OpenCongress.org, the most-visited non-profit website in the world for tracking the U.S. Congress. Conceived in 2004, the main problem that OpenCongress sought to address was a lack of accessible information online about bills, votes, and issues in the U.S. Congress. The official website of Congress, THOMAS, published raw data about legislation, but not in ways that are compliant with the community-generated Principles of Open Government Data, not in sufficiently timely ways, and not on webpages that were proven to be user-friendly. The platform was acquired by Sunlight Foundation in 2014 but has since returned to the PPF . OpenGovernment was designed to bring the OpenCongress model of transparency down to state and local governments. AskThem.io's development was supported by a charitable grant from the Knight Foundation's Tech 4 Engagement initiative . The site's management team actively sources charitable funding support to maintain the platform.
How It Works
There are two types of participants on AskThem.io—members of the public and government representatives. Anyone living in the United States is eligible to sign-up for an AskThem.io account. Representatives are likewise eligible to sign-up but their identity must be verified (often by connecting a verified Twitter account). Over 70 elected officials nationwide  signed-up to respond to public questions, "including five NYC council members, three NY state legislators, the mayor of Austin TX, Lee Leffingwell; and five of seven Austin city councilors; plus MA gubernatorial candidate Don Berwick" among many others .
AskThem.io uses information and communications technology to connect citizens with public officials and information on representatives from all levels of government. Using the platform, users can pose questions directly to representatives, read other users questions and answers, search for representatives and candidates in their area, access and use the website's open-sourceware and datasets, and receive other up-to-date information and news on public officials through the AskThem.io blog. Individuals who wish to can support questions that other users pose, by "voting them up and circulating them like online petitions" . As a question is voted up to reach a pre-set threshold, the recipient has the question sent to them by AskThem, encouraging a "public response" .
Analysis and Lessons Learned
From 2007-2014, AskThem.io received "over 27 million web visits and 69 million pageviews" . The website has successfully publicized aggregated data on the "closed-off federal legislative process, including the essential money-in-politics info that lies behind which bills get advanced...[and] public comment forums on bills and votes now makes it easier for users to follow recent developments and crowdsource analysis (such as on unemployment extensions)" .
In place since 2007, the platform has so far been unsuccessful in developing an effective platform for ongoing, two-way communication with Congress. Continual, reciprocal online public dialogue on priorities and policy remains a distinct goal. The website management team has engaged in "back-channel communication with Hill staffers and Library of Congress tech staff", but lacked the resources necessary to optimize AskThem.io for use as a channel to pressure for open communications between constituents and official .
However, AskThem.io does at least create the online space and tools necessary for continual, structured dialogue with every U.S. elected official. Similar to AskThem.io is the "White House’s “We The People” petition platform [which] has been proven to increase public trust and engagement, with over 8 million people signing questions for a public response" . While not technically possible back in 2007, large-scale data coverage and online interaction are now made feasible by Google’s development of a powerful open API as well as the growing #opengov community. These new events also signal a desire for more government transparency and public engagement, both of which could work in favour of AskThem.io's improvement.
 Moore, D. (2014, February 10). "AskThem.io launches today – questions-and-answers with public figures." Participatory Politics Foundation. Retrieved from http://www.participatorypolitics.org/askthem-io-launches-today-questions-and-answers-with-public-figures/
 Moore, D. (2013, October 7). Elected officials & candidates for public office who have signed-up for AskThem. Participatory Politics Foundation. Retrieved from http://www.participatorypolitics.org/elected-officials-who-have-signed-up-for-askthem/
This entry was originally submitted as a case and was converted to a tool to meet Participedia's definitional standards.