How Can an Austin Team of Civic Hackers Negotiate the Next Turn with Little Data

This year’s Code Across event in Austin initiated a conversation about an app we’re calling Council Connect. It started with a simple question: how do we keep up with what our City Council is doing? But the conversation extended well beyond the mode of citizen as a vigilant observer or a data wizard with the Council’s history just a click away.

I have to stop here for a minute to say that this February conversation could be the end of the story. We have now found several roadblocks lurking in the details and we need help recalculating our route.

The crew around the table at Code Across believed Austin citizens would be more involved in city decision making if we managed to make that process easy to follow. An app would have to notify citizens when an agenda item might impact their neighborhoods, their work or other interests. An app might have to coach citizens on what to do next if they found themselves concerned to know more. Bonus round: an app might even open up a channel for citizens to communicate their concerns to Council Members or make it possible for Council Members to solicit input on specific questions.

Understanding the Question

Several new problems in Austin’s political sphere motivated the work of our Code Across team. A new organization for Austin City Council, 10–1, had been implemented. A mostly new Council had also adopted a meeting structure that relied on developing agenda items through committees. Council Members hoped to address most citizen testimony through the work of these committees so no one had to endure the seemingly endless meetings of the previous Council.

The question at Code Across was much bigger than how to keep Austinites informed. The question was about how an Austin citizen would stay ahead of the Council’s agenda items that affect them so that they could get involved when their participation might still make a difference.

Some important definitions…

“Items that affect them…”

Could be a question of the new council districts that Austinites are still “trying on” as opposed to wearing them. An activist might be able to tell you what district they live in and what districts are nearby. Few others have given the map a second thought after election day.

Could also be a question of particular topics of interest. An imagined tennis enthusiast usually shows up in our user stories about this time but it could as easily be about our public golf courses, energy conservation or water resources. This could be a long list of user-defined interest areas.

Could also be a question of geography. Perhaps an individual works outside their district or spends a good amount of time in another quadrant of the city for other reasons. It could be a question of North vs. South but it might also be about commercial districts and development projects.

Could also be a question of the committees being added to the Council’s workflow. For personal or professional reasons, an Austin citizen might want to follow the Health and Human Services Committee or the Housing and Community Development Committee.

“Staying ahead… get involved when their participation might still make a difference…”

Requires a future oriented tool. If the committee structure is working as described, this might be about items appearing on their agendas. It might also be about Items being passed back from Council to them or from them to Council.

Implies some indication of next steps. Where is an item headed? This could include notifications when particular items appear on the Council’s agenda or reminders of deadlines for signing up to give public testimony.

Might also be a question of facilitating the contact between the user-interface the team designs and the appropriate Council Member or committee. Citizens could send messages to their district representative or perhaps respond to specific questions their representative posts.

And then all of this talk about an app to empower Austin citizens met the reality of a severe data gap. This isn’t where the car engine coughs but carries on. The team pursuing this project is stuck on a rural road with no help in sight and only the faintest cell signal. If you stand in precisely the right place.

Understanding the roadblock

The city publishes their regular agendas to the web via large text documents in HTML. The supporting documentation is provided through PDFs tied to a particular item ID. The search for an ID that followed an item through the policymaking process from beginning to end came up empty. The assigned ID shifts around depending on the agenda where it appears. Features such as tracking an item or recalling a policy’s history through the decision making process were simply not viable.

There is also a mixed bag of news about the agenda management software the city uses. It is being discontinued. From the looks of it, that sounds like a good thing but any volunteer hours spent designing solutions to the current system’s specific difficulties will soon be lost. If this project wins attention at next month’s Hack 4 Change event, it will need to be a proposal that is fairly lightweight and as independent of the agenda management system as possible.

If we succeed, the app could be more than a tool for Austin citizens. It could also be a tool for showing new Council Members what open data makes possible as they consider adopting new software. The app could empower Council Members to become champions for open data on the same terms they used when they took office…

Citizen engagement.

***Curious to see how this project turned out? Read our final update, #Council Connect Turns the Corner at ATX Hack For Change.

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