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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."

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