More than two years since the idea first began buzzing in our collective brains, Gotham Gazette finally launched its Councilpedia site last week.
Councilpedia, funded in part with a News Challenge grant from the Knight Foundation, is a unique new tool that will let people track the influence of money in New York City politics and help New Yorkers monitor their public officials. To accomplish this it does three main things.
First, it brings together an array of information about two citywide elected officials and the members of the New York City Council: legislative records, campaign finance information, and places to go to find out more. Most — not all — of this exists elsewhere, but it is scattered about — on Gotham Gazette, on the city Campaign Finance Board website and elsewhere. We’ve put it all in one place. This will help people easily go back and forth between the money — who helped fund the official’s campaign — and the politics. And in the process find out how the official vote on matters might affect those contributors.
Second it expands upon the campaign finance information previously available. New York City has a tough campaign finance law with public financing of campaigns (unless you’re a billionaire and so choose to opt out). As part of that, the Campaign Finance Board pulls together a formidable array of information and makes it readily available to all who come to its site. But the amount of information is overwhelming — long lists of names of people who gave to a candidate — and hard to digest. We’ve taken those lists of contributors and broken them down by categories: labor, for example, people in the real estate industry and so on.
And finally, we’ve asked our readers to connect the dots for us. Readers are encouraged, urged (even begged) to tell us what they know about contributors and their interests or about council members. If Contributor Z gave money to Candidate X who then proposed a zoning change that boosted the value of Z’s property, we want to know. Gotham Gazette reporters will try to check the allegations out; we’ll mark those that we can verify and take down ones we determine to be false or abusive.
We hope to have a lively online conversation that will inform New Yorkers and help them become more involved in the politics of their city. This is an experiment in crowdsourcing on local issues. We’ll keep you posted on how it develops — in case some of you want to try something similar in your communities. (And our City Hall editor Courtney Gross and technical manager JaVon Rice, who together did the lion’s share of the work on this, can warn you of some of the problems and issue you might face along the way.)
So far, we have received a lot of praise and coverage for Councilpedia. (For a sample go here, here and here for a video). People already are urging us to expand it — to judges, to state officials, to candidates as well a incumbents. One person even wanted us to delve into records of a past governor. Given how long it took us to get this far — and given the months of data coding, checking and re-entry, we’re gong to pause for now and watch what happens, fine tune what we have, see what kind of discussion develops and, we hope, follow up on some hot tips from readers.
So if you know about New York, tell us what you know. And even if you don’t know New York, tell us what you think about the project.