Machine Learning Detects Distracted Politicians

People in meeting, with highlights of detected phones and identities

[Dries Depoorter] has a knack for highly technical projects with a solid artistic bent to them, and this piece is no exception. The Flemish Scrollers is a software system that watches live streamed sessions of the Flemish government, and uses Python and machine learning to identify and highlight politicians who pull out phones and start scrolling. The results? Pushed out live on Twitter and Instagram, naturally. The project started back in July 2021, and has been dutifully running ever since, so by now we expect that holding one’s phone where the camera can see it is probably considered a rookie mistake.

This project can also be considered a good example of how to properly handle confidence in results depending on the application. In this case, false negatives (a politician is using a phone, but the software doesn’t detect it properly) are much more acceptable than false positives (a member gets incorrectly identified, or is wrongly called-out for using a mobile device when they are not.)

Keras, an open-source software library, is used for the object detection and facial recognition (GitHub repository for Keras is here.) We’ve seen it used in everything from bat detection to automatic trash sorting, so if you’re interested in machine learning applications, give it a peek.

39 thoughts on “Machine Learning Detects Distracted Politicians

    1. Technical speaking it can happen if the dataset that you use to train it contains pictures from sleeping people
      All this daata (time that they are distracted) can be correlated with the salary paid per minute and see how much money is wasted. Well, officially wasted because, in my opinion, they are all of them a waste of money

    1. Thanks for responding kindly to my ignorance!
      I followed up by reading the Wikipedia on Flemmish / Flanders, and found it quite interesting.
      I then read Wikipedia about my ancestral Alsace.
      Hopefully I am less ignorant now!

  1. it’s a neat project but i’m not sure i get the point. not only is a lot of legislative process bog boring, but it’s often important to coordinate with a wide variety of people (including constituents!) in order to be a good legislator. the ability to communicate with people outside of the chamber actually increases their ability to stay in the chamber and pay more attention to deliberations. if they had to go outside just to talk to their aides, they would miss a lot more.

      1. “tell him i’ll meet with him the moment senator johnson stops wasting our time with this bull” i don’t know where that falls on the “nothing to hide” spectrum but even the good ones don’t want to share their private deliberative process for a reason

  2. Four of the seven people in the pic are using phones. Two more, just as distracted, have a tablet or laptop. The hands of the last are off the bottom of the pic so we can’t tell what is distracting him. Evidently if you don’t want to be called out by name with colorful rectangles, use the bigger, clunker device.

    1. lmao, that is exactly what I thought. At my last company, people were giving me crap for being on my phone, even though I used it to take notes and look up work related things. So, I started bringing my laptop like everyone else and usually ended up being distracted more due to it being easier to switch tasks on a PC vs a phone…

    2. And you could write the program to focus on opposition party members, labeling them “inactive”, while members of your party, doing the same things with their phones and tablets are “active” or “attentive”.

  3. The used to be a over-the-ear hearing aid shaped device that would beep when you nod off. Keeps you alert while driving.
    As seen on TV!

    Then SNL did a skit where Congress wore them, a clip of C-SPAN played and the beeps start one by one during some filibuster.

    1. As hilarious as that would be to see on the live stream, I think a simple live ranking board bolted high on the wall showing every present politicians average percentage of device usage, ranked from most to least would be good too. It calls them out and embarrasses them in front of their colleagues, who will use it against them later, assuming they have a lower ranking. That way it spurs the political critters to be self policing. Nothing like a stab at ones reputation to make a politician do the right thing.

  4. Now log the time each politician spends on their phone as a percentage of time spent sitting there. Then make a nice like webpage showing the stats. I think it would be better to see everything in graphs and charts. Daily/weekly/yearly etc. Then expand to more politicians in more countries. Canada needs this baaaadly.

    1. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no friend of politicians, but this just seems like one of those things that is going to be blindly seen as ‘bad’. I could imagine hundreds of different positive uses for an internet device for them. Looking up facts or additional information for what another member has said. Messaging their staff to get clarification. Ordering lunch. Verifying schedules. Planning out bathroom breaks to not miss an important vote. Quickly searching documents for keywords rather than thumbing through paper copies.

      Also, do people not use their phones while in meetings with you? Can you not browse your phone while still paying attention to meat space? I’m in a meeting right now and responded to 2 direct questions no problem…

  5. Please release this on github.

    All politicians need to be targeted with AI as much as possible so they understand how and why it is an invasive and dangerous technology, potentially.
    After all they have nothing to hide…

Leave a Reply

Please be kind and respectful to help make the comments section excellent. (Comment Policy)

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.