[Episcopal News Service] It used to be that General Convention conducted all of its legislative business on paper – approximately 1.2 million pieces of paper in 2012. No more.
For the second convention running, each deputy, alternate deputy and bishop, upon arrival in Austin, Texas, for the 79th General Convention, will get a loaner iPad to use as a “Virtual Binder.” The iPads being used during the July 5-13 gathering are newer and faster than the ones the General Convention office rented in 2015.
Replacing each actual binder with the digital system will save the cost of the estimated 2,400 reams of paper, which amounted to about six tons, plus the copying costs. Convention veterans recall an actual binder that they gradually filled with their copies as the gathering progressed, often to the point where some used wheeled bags to transport their binders. “Click time” was set aside in each house for bishops and deputies to update their binders. Tracking the progress of resolutions was impossible for people who did not attend convention. No more.
Moreover, not only have the Virtual Binder’s functions been improved and expanded for greater access across the church, but the system has made the Episcopal Church and the General Convention innovative leaders in the business of legislation tracking. There is also the prospect of sharing and licensing the system’s basic architecture to other groups.
The Virtual Binder is an app that runs on the bishops’ and deputies’ iPads, and can be accessed online. Those without a General Convention iPad can access the online version here. That latter version mirrors the app running on the iPads and changes along with it in real time.
No matter how it is accessed, the 2018 edition of the Virtual Binder enables users to track the progress of convention resolutions. It also includes each house’s daily agendas, calendars for each day and journals (a list of messages sent between the houses informing the other of actions taken), committee calendars and reports. It contains tabs for checking on current action and floor amendments in each house.
All in all, “this is exactly what the bishops and deputies are seeing on their iPads,” Twila Rios, manager of digital information systems in the convention office, told Episcopal News Service. “It’s replicated in real time which means there’s nanoseconds’ difference between what’s out there and what’s in here – something that human beings can’t register.”
“The most important thing is that within the budget constraints, which is what everybody in the church has to operate on, the new features are all in response to the questions and the feedback we received after the last General Convention,” said the Rev. Michael Barlowe, executive officer of the General Convention, in an interview with ENS.
The 2018 edition of the binder includes these major changes:
- An expanded resolutions search function will give users more information about a resolution’s status. Reports of committee actions on each resolution will be available, as will postings when a committee or a house is due to consider a resolution. Resolution texts will be updated as committees or houses make changes.
- It used to be the that only way to know what a legislative committee was doing was to find the large stand in a convention hallway on which each committee’s daily agenda was posted. That stand will still operate in Austin, but now such information will be searchable in the Virtual Binder by committee, date or resolution number. “We hope that this will make it a lot better than it was last time,” Rios said. “It’s also dynamic,” she added, explaining that when a committee chair tells the General Convention Office about a meeting it wants scheduled, one of many volunteers enters the information into the system and it shows up immediately in the Virtual Binder. Those volunteers also will process resolution changes in real time.
- Communications from one house to the other will also be posted to the Virtual Binder. In addition, text-based documents (as opposed to PDFs) used during debate or announcements in text form will be available in the binder.
- The church’s Constitution and Canons are also included in the binder. Bishops and deputies often need to reference those rules, and “it’s easier to have it right there” than via a separate book or through internet access, Rios said.
The Virtual Binder is the public-facing portion of a multilayered system known as the Legislative Processing Online System that the General Convention Office developed with the help of E-accent, a software developer, according to Rios.
“There’s not a lot of legislative software out there. There’s a limited set of vendors and a limited number of customers,” she said, explaining that government entities are the main users.
“When we jumped into it prior to 2015, there wasn’t much out there.”
The General Convention Office took “a high risk that paid off” to make the switch to digital systems in the run-up to the 2015 convention, Barlowe said. “We actually invented this. No one had done anything like this in the legislative world.”
E-accent “took our ideas and created this thing,” he said, calling his staff the architects and the software developer the engineers.
The Virtual Binder and all of the other systems that mesh to make convention run smoothly require a lot of bandwidth, and Barlowe said the Episcopal Church’s director of information technology, Darvin Darling, and his staff have helped his office with some “innovative ways that we can do more within the same bandwidth.”
Both at the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City where convention met in 2015 and now at the Austin Convention Center, the buildings’ technical-support people, he said, “were fascinated by what we were doing, too.”
“That’s really a tip of the hat to the Episcopal Church and the General Convention Office that, even in a place like Austin which is pretty cutting-edge technologically, techies are interested in what we’re doing,” Barlowe said, referring to Austin’s annual South by Southwest event.
The Virtual Binder app and its connected systems are also what Barlowe described as an exercise in “ethical software.” Its developers don’t exploit their workers and General Convention meets or exceeds U.S. and European privacy rules.
“It’s part of our job to think through those things and to act as you’d expect a church to operate, not just at the minimal ethical standards, but maximize the way that we treat data and the way we organize things and the way that we operate digitally,” he said.
“The longer term hope” is that the General Convention Office can find ways to share the systems with dioceses and other denominations, Barlowe said. There have already been conversations with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, for instance.
If the church has been an innovator in software, it has also led the market in the type of hardware convention needs. When Rios was looking to rent 1,200 tablets prior to the 2015 convention for the members of both houses plus the other administrative people who would need them, she discovered it was an unusual request. Also unusual was her request that the iPads be “custom imaged” with the General Convention’s apps.
“We were a new thing to the vendors,” she said.
In fact, the vendor, Meeting Tomorrow, now uses the idea of “custom imaged” iPads as part of its sales pitch. And E-accent, which will have staffers at General Convention, uses its work for the Episcopal Church to showcase its business.
The systems, Rios said, are constantly being refined and update. “It’s a work in progress,” she said.
The aim of that work is “trying to improve the ways that we can provide the information, make it more searchable,” she said. “There’s limitations and I’m always trying to find ways around the limitations and help to make this better, so people can find the information that they need.”
Some limitations are financial, and some are technological, she and Barlowe said. For instance, some people asked for the ability for individual bishops and deputies to message each other from their iPads. Adding the infrastructure to meet that request “was beyond our financial capacity,” Barlowe said.
Another digital way to follow convention
A free General Convention app is available for anyone using a smartphone or tablet running Android 4.4 or iOS 8.0 or later. The app contains General Convention schedules, maps, vendor information, daily orders of worship services and other useful materials. (Complete orders of service for convention’s daily Eucharists are also included on the iPads, thus eliminating the need to print hundreds of worship booklets daily.)
– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is the Episcopal News Service’s senior editor and reporter.