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March 04 2011

15:43

Councilpedia a Hit with New Yorkers, But Not Politicians

It's been a month since Gotham Gazette launched its Councilpedia project to monitor city elected officials and track money in local politics. (To read our earlier entry on Councilpedia, go here.)

In those weeks, we've learned a lot about what people like and don't like about the service. This information will help us improve what we think is an important tool for New Yorkers and an example other local news sites might want to follow.

Popular with People, not Politicians

councilpedia grab small.jpg

First, by and large, people like it. Even though most of the information -- but not all of it -- was already scattered about on Gotham Gazette and other sites, readers appreciate having all that data in one place. As someone who, like most editors, usually only hears from readers when they have complaints, I enjoyed getting emails with comments like "love it," "great new tool," "great addition to an already fine website," and so on.

We also received favorable coverage from a number of local news organizations. The New York Daily News ran a story about Councilpedia as did the local cable news channel and some political blogs. The New York Post even used it to call out a councilmember who seems not to have done much work during the last year.

Some of the city officials did not share that enthusiasm. In particular, they did not like the focus on campaign contributions. Our information on this is not original -- we took it from the city's Campaign Finance Board, which keeps track of such things and makes them public on its own. It's a very useful site. We did, though, sort all that information in an attempt to make it more user friendly and informative. So with Councilpedia, readers can, with two clicks, find out which unions gave money to Councilmember X and which lawyers helped Councilmember Y.

What some council members really, really do not like, apparently, is that we identify contributions from the real estate industry. Real estate -- developers, brokers, construction -- are probably the most important special interest in NYC politics. Many New York politicians rely on their support. They just hope people won't notice. Councilpedia makes it a bit harder to keep that secret.

There's a lesson in there somewhere.

What We've Learned

Some of the lessons are already clear to us. One is that, while people visit the site and explore it, they have been slow to post comments. Getting the public to share information and having a discussion about money and politics are key to Councilpedia, so we will try to ramp that up.

In the next week or so, we plan to add a tutorial explaining more fully how to foster user interactions. We also hope to offer some short information sessions on Councilpedia and how to use it. And we expect that fresh information on the site -- the list of earmarks for the next fiscal year, for example -- will spur more people to get involved.

We're eager for other suggestions and would appreciate hearing from anyone who has done crowdsourcing and had a good response.

The second lesson: People would like to see more of this. They wonder why we did not include the mayor (Michael Bloomberg is a billionaire, so he doesn't take campaign contributions). Other readers wanted to see the information on state legislators, judges, and possible mayoral candidates.

More Money, More Monitoring

So would we. The problem, alas, is resources.

Councilpedia has something like 31,000 pages. While some of the data was copied or downloaded, much of it required formatting and tweaking by our technical manager JaVon Rice. And every single campaign contribution to all of the 53 officials in Councilpedia had to be hand-coded by sector and location. This required a large number of interns and freelancers working under the supervision of our city government editor, Courtney Gross. Even with a generous grant from the Knight Foundation, this stretched our resources to the limit and probably beyond.

New York's state legislature, which has been termed one of the most dysfunctional in the country and is awash is questionable campaign finance shenanigans, represent a tempting target for this type of project. Now if only we had a million dollars to do it...

February 07 2011

18:04

Councilpedia Follows the Money in New York City Politics

More than two years since the idea first began buzzing in our collective brains, Gotham Gazette yesterday finally launched its Councilpedia site.

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.

Reader Input

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.

October 06 2010

14:50

Pushing the Limits of What a Wiki Can Do with Councilpedia

Barely two decades into the digital age, we take online media for granted. So much is so easy and convenient -- at our fingertips -- that we can forget technology can only do so much. Then we come up with a great idea that leaves us with the challenge of how to successfully push the limits.

This is what has confronted Gotham Gazette as we move into the final stages of creating our Councilpedia site. Councilpedia, a Knight News Challenge winner that I've blogged about here previously, will explore more fully the links between money and politics in New York City.

Councilpedia will enable visitors to the site to share what they know about politicians and their donors. It is to be powered by MediaWiki to let people flag something -- noting, for example, that one contributor to a candidate owns land she hopes to get rezoned for a Walmart. Gotham Gazette staff will then confirm -- or delete -- the comment.

Filtering Data

The core of Councilpedia is information already on Gotham Gazette, information from City Council (on earmarks, for example) and, above all, the massive records from the city Campaign Finance Board on giving and spending. The sheer magnitude of all this data has posed an array of problems.

The city data, while thorough and accessible, is inscrutable to most New Yorkers -- a list of largely meaningless names. To make it easier to search and understand, we set out to code the data (to indicate large donors, those from the city, unions, real estate industry etc.). With some candidates having thousands of contributors, this presented a massive task. Fortunately, we had some conscientious interns this summer who, between their other reporting responsibilities, dutifully researched and coded line after line of information under the supervision of our city government editor, Courtney Gross.

Readers will be able to examine this data in a number of ways. They can view by candidate. They can find out who else the contributor helped fund. They can look at intermediaries and determine whose money they bundled and then who it went to. And so on.

For the wiki, though, this mountain of information has been a bit much. When technical manager William JaVon Rice began uploading the data into spreadsheets he had created, the process took 36 hours and produced some 31,000 pages -- a sure indication no one would ever attempt this in print. The system balked, overwriting pages, for example, which required Rice to check every candidate's list of often hundreds of contributors to determine which ones had been overwritten. Then he had to undo the overwrite.

Pushing The Limits of MediaWiki

We're still planning to have this ready to show you in the next several weeks. And we think you'll be impressed. Not to boast, but the reporters, campaign finance aficionados and followers of city government who viewed our test felt that way.

But we do see a number of issues looming ahead. Councilpedia is intended as a living, breathing site, meaning data will continue to accumulate as officials collect more money, award more earmarks, pass more bills, and so on. The updating poses a challenge for a small non-profit like Gotham Gazette.

The magnitude of the new information -- added to the volumes we already have -- is likely to push the limits of MediaWiki even further.

With this in mind, we're looking for ways to automate the process more. And we hope someone -- any takers out there?-- will make MediaWiki more robust or create or an alternative.

As always, we appreciate your ideas, so feel free to share them in the comments below. And stay tuned for Councilpedia.

July 16 2010

17:44

Councilpedia In Private Pilot, Overcoming Tech Challenges

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.

March 18 2010

21:26

In Seach of a Wiki with Track Changes

Most of us have become so used to being able to do so much online that is comes as a surprise when we want to do something and can't find the tools to do it.

That's the situation confronting the Gotham Gazette staff as we move forward with our Councilpedia project that will use crowdsourcing to probe the links between money and politics. I'm hoping you can help. (For more on Councilpedia see my earlier post.)

Monitoring Revisions

The project will enable registered users to contribute information on campaign donors and the politicians they help. Like Wikipedia, Councilpedia needs to allow readers to easily provide us with information. But we also want the ability to monitor revisions much the same way that Microsoft Word's track changes does.

Our technical manager, JaVon Rice, has found that Mediawiki simply does not do everything we need it to do and is looking for something essentially like Writeboard or Google Docs, except for public rather than just internal use.

Any ideas? Please share them in the comments.

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