Councilmatic Creates Open City Data (even for FB)

Just seeing Facebook launched a mobile feature, “Town Hall”, where users enter a street address and then “follow” pages for their elected officials at various levels of government.

I mean, early thumbs-up, the civic engagement community can’t pretend FB isn’t massive — look forward to see if it’s supported. Of course as an open-source developer, I’m critical that any city-resident feedback will be trapped inside the app, and I’m critical of FB on a number of ethical fronts.

But entering my Brooklyn address in Town Hall did not return my NYC Council Member (just for posterity, Bushwick’s CM Rafael Espinal).

(Note above: no City Council section, NYC city-wide electeds are in “local” section.) To be clear, this means the Town Hall feature was launched without supporting *either* local data as sophisticated as the free-but-not-open-and-not-comprehensive Google Civic Info API, *or* licensing commercial data sources such as Cicero from Azavea. It wasn’t worth supporting Councils.

It’s 2017, and there still exists no open data for city elected officials in the top 100 U.S. cities. Just as there did not in 2016, just as there did not in the years before during which we proposed Democracy Map, just as there did not when we launched OpenGovernment.org in 2011 with the goal of providing this solution. The #opengovdata movement stopped before counties & cities.

The problem is that even a company as huge as FB makes the product decision that connecting city residents to their city Council members is not worth investing in providing a data source. Missed mega-civic opportunity.

But our non-profit, open-data Councilmatic project was designed to fill precisely this niche! As part of the #opengov movement for the past ten years, we’ve brought open data on “who represents you” to federal, state, and as of now, at least three U.S. cities — NYC, Chicago, and Philadelphia, with partners DataMade & Mjumbe Poe. See our NYC address lookup page, using GIS districts from official NYC open data portal (plus a service) to return council members.

Here’s the point I’ve been trying to make publicly for the past several years: providing city data to the public commons is a way for Councilmatic to both generate earned-revenue (towards non-profit sustainability) and scale our impact for local engagement & user base. Fund our public-benefit work in 2017 to provide quality-assured city elected official info for (say) the top 100 U.S. cities - to Google Civic Info API, Facebook Town Hall, maybe the great Voting Info Project API, even to 14+ commercial #civictech competitors.

January ‘16, I wrote on scope of work, based on contributor community and use of API’s from PPF’s OpenCongress and Sunlight’s Open States project:

One goal would be to liberate open data for governments in the top 50 U.S. cities by population, covering approximately 50 million Americans, around 15% of the U.S. population. (Surrounding metropolitan areas could join in by adopting the Open Civic Data standard and the open-data community.) That would be, by population, New York City at number one, down through Wichita & New Orleans at 49 and 50. Beyond that, a medium-term goal would be covering current elected officials for the 81% of U.S. population that lives in the top 500 “urban areas” (per 2010 U.S. Census) goal of 90% coverage with at least 90% accuracy would be admirable too, towards full national coverage

What’s the cost and return on investment? Well, briefly, Councilmatic has a number of core uses — for transparency, public dialogue and community engagement. But to provide open city Council data — and more official city government info, such as contact info and committee hearing agendas — at production-use scale, a non-profit budget of two full-time technologists and one partnerships manager would be adequate. Call it ballpark $350k annual budget, maintained half from earned-revenue partnerships, half from charitable foundations. Focused, smaller-size non-profit #opengov projects are an incorporation model that’s fallen out of favor in favor of commercial #civictech startups taking VC and then an early exit.

But Facebook just launched its feature without city council data — the opportunity cost for local engagement has been suffered because this baseline level of investment has been missing from the #opengovdata field since 2011.

This situation is a definition commons-tragedy, that the maintenance of hundreds of sets of city data is decently tough and unthinkable for third-party startups- it’s why we’re proposing our non-profit open-data Councilmatic, as an experienced & focused community project, be financially supported to provide this quality-assured info to commercial tech projects (just like FB’s!) that don’t have the incentives to really reach down to the most-local level or maintain open data.

Can anyone reading connect our c3 non-profit with a charitable philanthropist who can pledge some of the $150k in charitable funding — to meet some $150k in earned-revenue funding- that would enable Councilmatic to provide local data to Facebook & others this year? Then from this open-data foundation, more powerful engagement features are possible, as demonstrated in NYC & Chicago Councilmatic (free of charge): public meetings, event agendas, and email alerts on custom search terms:

More detailed project & funding & impact info available upon request —simply email, david at ppolitics.org. We seek to take the public benefits of #opengov finally all the way down to city council levels. We have dedicated ourselves to this mission of effective local advocacy, but practical & scalable projects are falling by the wayside every year because of a lack of modest non-profit funding. (See also on this point, to complement earned-revenue, non-profit project funding could come from my intentionally-controversial One Percent Rule. Not just programs, not just conferences, but open-data projects and products, imagine where we’d be by now in 2017.)