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City Bureau and ProPublica Illinois Partner on Public Meeting Data

Why City Bureau and ProPublica are partnering on a community tool to make public meeting data more accessible.

City Bureau and ProPublica Illinois are meeting weekly to share skills, learn new techniques and build scrapers to collect times, dates and locations of civic and governmental public meetings in Chicago. (David Eads/ProPublica)

Public meetings are important spaces for democracy, where any resident can participate and hold public figures accountable. City Bureau's Documenters program pays community members an hourly wage to attend and document public meetings, as a way to inform and engage their communities.

How do Documenters know when meetings are happening? It’s not easy. These events are spread across dozens of websites and are rarely available in machine-readable calendar formats like iCal.

Events are buried on dozens of websites with inconsistent formatting and information, as shown in these screenshots of the Regional Transportation Authority (top) and the Illinois Labor Relations Board (bottom) websites.

To better manage the data, City Bureau and ProPublica Illinois are working together to develop a community open-source project to scrape and store this information in a central calendar. We believe that like Elex, the NPR / New York Times collaboration to make election data easier to work with, joining forces on this data plumbing will yield dividends for City Bureau and ProPublica Illinois. Other organizations and individuals also will find it useful, and having two partners who want the same information for different purposes provides a strong incentive to push the project forward.

Because there are so many calendars in so many formats but only one way to actually store the data, the project also provides a great opportunity for people interested in becoming involved in civic data or data journalism, or who just want to learn how they can contribute to an open-source project. It’s the kind of project that offers many discrete tasks that can be split up among a group with varying skills, skill levels and interests.

On July 30, we announced a call for coders via social media, City Bureau’s newsletter and direct email alerts to Chicago’s various civic tech organizations. Our plan was to meet every Tuesday between 4-8 p.m. at City Bureau’s South Side newsroom to share skills, learn new techniques and build scrapers to collect times, dates and locations of civic and governmental public meetings in Chicago. Some 48 hours later, we had a growing list of sign-ups and a core group of 10 novice and experienced coders at our first working session.

By our third hacking session, four scrapers had been completed and 20 were underway. That same week, the introduction of a code of conduct helped to frame how we would work — in a collaborative, equitable working environment created by our participants in prior weeks. What’s more, one lucky coder left the session with some City Bureau and ProPublica swag.

What’s Next

The Public Meeting Aggregator project was started to respond to a journalistic need for one place to find public meetings. Eventually, it will be integrated into a larger civic journalism plan outlined in City Bureau’s June 27 blog post, “Investing in Our Documenters = Investing in Our Community,” which explains how a $50,000 prototype grant from the Democracy Fund and the Knight Foundation will be used over the next eight months to create a digital platform to manage, coordinate, compensate and track City Bureau Documenters.

In the short term, we’ll provide space for our volunteer civic coders so they can exchange skills on the open-source public meetings aggregator and City Bureau staffers can plan the best use of its $50,000 prototype grant. The goal: to promote a diverse set of coders, build a unique civic platform and expand the Documenters program to other cities. ProPublica will use the event data to better deploy reporters and to examine issues like the accessibility of public meetings.

On Oct. 14, City Bureau will host a “design-a-thon” aimed at designing and vetting a public-facing version of our civic aggregator — complete with a better name for the tool. Much like a hack-a-thon, where coders meet to engage in collaborative computer programming, City Bureau’s design-a-thon is a free day-long event where designers, coders, journalists and community members will work in teams. The goal: to bring together different perspectives and approaches to propose solutions for how to use the event data.

Throughout the day, we'll host trainings by local journalists, designers and coders to help fulfill City Bureau's mission to provide a civic service while democratizing skills, creating shared learning environments and encouraging dialogue across communities.

For more information on how you can get involved, check out City Bureau’s event page.

Want to Get Involved Remotely?

We’ll be meeting at City Bureau’s South Side newsroom through September but you can also contribute to the project remotely. How? Sign up to join City Bureau’s Slack (please be sure to say hello in the #introductions channel) and check out the project’s Github page for a primer on the code, issues and pull requests. If you want to take on a scraper, leave us a comment here next to the appropriate public meeting.

Not a coder? Check out this spreadsheet of Chicago’s public meetings to help us fact-check. Add public meetings that aren’t listed and/or help us fill out columns by leaving comments; the doc is currently read-only but open to comments from anyone.

Want to see a Public Meetings Aggregator for your city? Let us know.

David Eads

David Eads is a former news applications developer at ProPublica Illinois, where he combined journalism with software development.

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