Councilpedia In Private Pilot, Overcoming Tech Challenges

    by Gail Robinson
    July 16, 2010

    Over the last several months, Gotham Gazette has made major strides on its Councilpedia project, which will help New Yorkers keep tabs on their local officials and share their knowledge with others. Over the last year, the project has evolved and — we think — improved from our original plan.

    Currently we have a pilot for the site with the design, the structure and information for three office holders. We are not ready to release this to the world, but if you would like a sneak preview please email me at grobinson at gothamgazette.com.

    Councilpedia Brings City and Candidate Information to Life

    Councilpedia intends to bring an array of information about City Council members and other city officials — the bills they sponsor, background information, member items (a.k.a earmarks) — to one site, along with campaign finance information. New York City, which has public financing of campaigns, requires a lot of disclosure on the part of candidates as to where they get their money and how they spend it, but the information can be hard to read and comprehend.


    That is one way Councilpedia will be useful. First, it sorts the donors by various categories, such as unions, major givers and intermediaries. By having the campaign finance information along with voting information, Councilpedia can help people make possible connections between money and politics. They can then comment on the site.

    The city information on donors is essentially a long list of names. Councilpedia will enable readers to identify who those people are. One example would be that John Doe, who gave to candidate X, owns a lot in the candidate’s district and wants it re-zoned.

    Anyone who registers can — and is urged to — comment. Gotham Gazette staff will review comments, verify them and use the leads from our readers to inform our reporting. Overall, we hope Councilpedia will enrich the debate about money and politics in New York.


    Making Tools Work

    In putting this project together we have grappled with adapting two disparate — and balky — technical tools to our needs.

    The first was the
    Campaign Finance Board
    information. While the board provides a wealth of information (and has a very helpful staff to boot), the information can be hard to read and is not formatted the way we wanted it.

    After trying various techniques to import the data, we eventually confronted the cold reality: The only feasible way — given our limitations — to create an attractive, user friendly site that did what we wanted it to do (and what we promised Knight it would do) was to re-input the data and code it ourselves.

    This is incredibly painstaking. Luckily, we have several excellent interns this summer who pitched in to help.

    The other issue dealt with adapting the wiki to our needs. While our technical manager, JaVon Rice, has pushed the limits of the wiki, we found there were things it would not do. For example, we had hoped to flag items that have recently received comment and have the comments appear along with the item.

    Instead, we will have comment pages. We will indicate if a comment has been posted on a contribution or piece of legislation, but that also will not be automatic. Gotham Gazette staff will have to mark the item themselves.

    Keeping the site current will also require staff intervention — to add bills, to update financial reports, to remove offensive or simply incorrect comments.

    Will it be worth it? We certainly hope so and are eager to move to the next step and engage New Yorkers in this conversation about money and politics.

    Tagged: city council councilpedia gotham gazette government data new york wiki

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