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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.

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