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Tracking State Bills Takes a Village: The Legislature Tracker Gets Launched in N.Y.

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The New York edition of the open source Legislature Tracker

I'm an interactive news developer at MinnPost in Minneapolis. I've been working in the Nerd Cube at ProPublica this week as a P5 Resident.

I spent the week working with other developers enhancing MinnPost’s Legislature Tracker so that any newsroom can easily use it to report on the work of their state legislature.

The Legislature Tracker is an application that provides a curation layer on top of the vast amount of legislative data that is produced each session in all the 50 states around the country. It enables newsrooms, organizations or individuals to easily identify and keep track of bills that they or their audiences will find important.

The goal of the week was to make the tool work for states other than Minnesota. That required some coding help but also needed expertise in a statehouse other than my own. So in addition to ProPublica's help we were really happy to turn to the energetic team at The New York World.

After a week-long sprint, we accomplished two major things: We've made the Tracker easily customizable to work with any legislature; and the New York World is launching a New York Legislation Tracker which highlights what their editors have decided are the important bills that are being debated in Albany.

The MinnPost data team, Tom Nehil, Kaeti Hinck, and I, worked hard on developing the Legislature Tracker at the beginning of the year, and we were very excited to launch it last month. We saw early on that this sort of application could be very useful for other states and other groups, and we made many decisions to ensure that the application could be easily re-used and deployed. But due to deadlines and limited resources, we were not quite able to fully reach that goal. Fortunately I had the honor to come be a part of the P5 program here at Propublica and knew right away it would be a great opportunity to reach the goal of finishing what we started with Legislature Tracker.

At the beginning of the week Scott Klein, Jeremy Merrill, and I were talking about what we could accomplish this week, and we realized that the easiest way to make sure we were making the Legislature Tracker widely applicable was to make one for another state. This would make it obvious if our assumptions were correct and if our code worked like we thought it did. Scott immediately thought of The New York World and called editor Alyssa Katz, who jumped at the chance. The next morning two terrific NY World staffers -- Beth Morrissey and Michael Sullivan -- were hacking with us in the nerd cube. Beth is a reporting fellow with knowledge about the New York State Legislature and had contacts to dig in deep on the subtleties of the state legislative process, as well as to identify the bills worth tracking. Mike, who is the New York World’s tech-savvy deputy editor, hopped on to help code on the Tracker and deploy it for New York World.

With this hard-working ad-hoc team, we sprinted all week to add features, fix bugs, identify bills, code in legislative process, and ultimately launch the Legislature Tracker on the New York World site.

I came into the P5 program very excited and ready to make the Tracker project much more useful to everyone, but my expectations have been blown away and am very proud of what we were able to accomplish this week. Many thanks to MinnPost, Propublica, and New York World for the all their help and resources. If you want to launch the Legislature Tracker in your state, shoot me an email.

The Legislature Tracker is all open source. Examples and documentation are over on Github. There's still plenty to do to make it better, so any help is much appreciated.

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