Personal Democracy Plus Our premium content network. LEARN MORE You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

Open Docket, an Open Government Tool for Small Towns and Cities

BY Sam Roudman | Monday, February 4 2013

In small towns, getting civic information can be a mess. Figuring out the history or status of a request for a new stop sign can require a slog through weeks or months of PDF files of meeting agendas, minutes, and reports. Is the information public? Yes. Is it accessible? No.

“It’s very difficult to find out what’s going on,” says Sean Roche, a citizen of Newton, Mass. who has been involved in everything from zoning permits to the Transportation Advisory Group in the town of nearly 85,000 people. With some help from Matt MacDonald, the cofounder of Nearbyfyi, an API for cities and towns based in Vermont, Roche is creating Open Docket, which will combine all the history of a given agenda item in one place, making it easier for towns to post information on meeting agenda items and for citizens to follow it.

"The main thing that’s gonna be helpful is connecting items, committees, meetings and documents," says Roche. Open Docket will connect the complete history of a given agenda item in one place.

“Right now the way in which municipalities publish this information is so scattershot,” says MacDonald. He says Roche is “looking for and trying to create structure out of data that lacks it.”

The two admit that they’re not the first to approach this problem — they cite Granicus as a commercial example — but they’re looking to make Open Docket available to towns that are tiny or can’t afford new software, where a council meeting might take place around a kitchen table.

“They’ve all got meetings and dockets and votes,” says Roche, of small towns. “The fundamental plumbing is all the same.”

According to MacDonald, Open Docket is meeting an unmet need.

“Most of the municipalities in the US have fewer than 50,000 [people],” he says, adding that although most of the civic hacking attention focuses on big cities, “there’s this giant underclass of municipalities that are effectively left out of those conversations.”

But before Open Docket can join the conversation, it has to deliver. Roche was still touching up Open Docket as of this past weekend. Working with the city clerk in Newton, he’s going to run Open Docket in parallel with the city’s CMS the next couple months.

“A lot of the civic hacking projects that come out are on the periphery of internal municipal processes,” says MacDonald, “Sean is talking to a real clerk.”

MacDonald is hopeful that with projects like Open Docket, civic hacking is moving into what he calls its “second phase,” away from messing with external datasets, and instead “working to fix the internal processes [of cities] with much better tools.”

After testing in Newton Open Docket will face the challenge of getting adopted by small cities.

“If it’s designed well to solve specific problems, it becomes much easier to do,” says MacDonald. The two hope Open Docket will be enough of a hit with citizens that residents in nearby towns will put pressure on their local governments. They also plan on taking Open Docket to town and city managers in Vermont and Maine.

First, Roche has to finish coding it in his off hours. He's planning on sitting down with the Newton City Clerk in the next week or two.

“We’re in development," he says, "and wicked cool is right around the corner."

Transparency and Public Shaming: Pakistan Tackles Tax Evasion

In Pakistan, where only one in 200 citizens files their income tax return, authorities published a directory of taxpayers' details for the first time. Officials explained the decision as an attempt to shame defaulters into paying up.

GO

wednesday >

Facebook Seeks Approval as Financial Service in Ireland. Is the Developing World Next?

On April 13 the Financial Times reported that Facebook is only weeks away from being approved as a financial service in Ireland. Is this foray into e-money motivated by Facebook's desire to conquer the developing world before other corporate Internet giants do? Maybe.

GO

The Rise and Fall of Iran's “Blogestan”

The robust community of Iranian bloggers—sometimes nicknamed “Blogestan”—has shrunk since its heyday between 2002 – 2010. “Whither Blogestan,” a recent report from the University of Pennsylvania's Iran Media Program sought to find out how and why. The researchers performed a web crawling analysis of Blogestan, survey 165 Persian blog users, and conducted 20 interviews with influential bloggers in the Persian community. They found multiple causes of the decline in blogging, including increased social media use and interference from authorities.

GO

tuesday >

Weekly Readings: What the Govt Wants to Know

A roundup of interesting reads and stories from around the web. GO

Russia to Treat Bloggers Like Mass Media Because "the F*cking Journalists Won't Stop Writing"

The worldwide debate over who is and who isn't a journalist has raged since digital media made it much easier for citizen journalists and other “amateurs” to compete with the big guys. In the United States, journalists are entitled to certain protections under the law, such as the right to confidential sources. As such, many argue that blogging should qualify as journalism because independent writers deserve the same legal protections as corporate employees. In Russia, however, earning a place equal to mass media means additional regulations and obligations, which some say will lead to the repression of free speech.

GO

Politics for People: Demanding Transparent and Ethical Lobbying in the EU

Today the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (ALTER-EU) launched a campaign called Politics for People that asks candidates for the European Parliament to pledge to stand up to secretive industry lobbyists and to advocate for transparency. The Politics for People website connects voters with information about their MEP candidates and encourages them to reach out on Facebook, Twitter or by email to ask them to sign the pledge.

GO

monday >

Security Agencies Given Full Access to Telecom Data Even Though "All Lebanese Can Not Be Suspects"

In late March, Lebanese government ministers granted security agencies unrestricted access to telecommunications data in spite of some ministers objections that it violates privacy rights. Global Voices reports that the policy violates Lebanon's existing surveillance and privacy law, Law 140, but has gotten little coverage from the country's mainstream media.

GO

More