As Gotham Gazette gears up to launch a pilot version of its Knight-funded Councilpedia project, we are confronting a number of interesting issues.
To step back first, though, Councilpedia will provide information about New York’s 51 City Council members and two citywide elected officials, including their campaign finance information, the bills they introduced, and the groups they gave “member items” — the parlance here for pork or earmarks. (Our third citywide elected official — the mayor — only takes contributions from one person: his billionaire self.)
Readers will be able to search this data and tag it, providing information and, we hope, creating a dialogue about money and politics in New York City. If successful, this crowdsourcing technique could be adopted in other areas, such as city contracts, and in other cities and states.
How Councilpedia Will Work
Here’s what we hope will happen. A reader in Councilwoman Z’s district will go to her Councilpedia page and see that real estate developers have given large amounts to her campaign. The reader will see a $2,500 donation from Company X and tag it saying, “Company X bulldozed a building, forcing 20 orphans out of a home.”
That building was in Councilwoman Z’s district, another reader will say. And another astute reader will notice that Councilwoman Z sponsored a bill to exempt orphanages from city laws banning midnight building demolitions.
Gotham Gazette checks this out, leaves the comments up for all to see (marking them as verified) and does a story about the links between Councilwoman Z and Company X, and whether their actions have contributed to a sharp increase in the number of homeless orphans in NYC.
Our main source for much of the raw data will be the New York Campaign Finance Board. By most accounts, the city has a model campaign finance law, and the board gets as much information into the hands of the public as it can. That said, the lists of donors often seem to be little more than an undifferentiated list of unfamiliar names.
Thinking Like Readers
We hope Councilpedia visitors will help us make sense of the lists. But it’s unreasonable to expect people to scroll through thousands of names hoping they’ll see something that makes them sit up and say “A-ha!” So our first challenge has been trying to pre-digest the campaign finance data.
This involved trying to put ourselves in our readers’ heads by thinking what they might search for: developers, probably; janitors, probably not. And it involves making some value judgments. Contributions from the United Federation of Teachers should be tagged as union contributions; but what about cash from an individual teacher who is almost certainly a UFT member, but not necessarily an adherent of the union’s policy positions? And so on.
We’ve made a first cut on these issues and hope when we test it in the spring that people will tell us what we should add. In the meantime, we’re plowing through the laborious grunt work of tagging all the data.
The other issue that our technical manager and web producer, W. JaVon Rice, has been grappling with is how to present this data and how to encourage interactivity and tagging, while also protecting the integrity of the site. We’ve already learned that wikis are far less nimble and adaptable than we had hoped.
We’ll be testing out various solutions in the weeks to come, and look forward to sharing some of them with you and getting your opinion.