Local government is sexy


Local government is sexy.

It isn’t really, but it could be made much simpler to understand. Most of the work that takes place in local government is done in Select Boards, Town Councils and Sub-Committees like Finance and Public Works. Most people could care less what goes on these meetings until their local property tax bill comes. Most cities and towns live in the stone age when it comes to the processes for their meetings. It’s like the Internet never even existed. Word documents scanned as images then turned into PDFs that require OCR are state of the art: http://www.cityofwestfield.org/Files/AgendaCenter/Agendas/68/Archives/57/01-08-13%20Conservation%20PH%20Niemiec.pdf.

I’ve been working on a set of tools to collect meeting minutes, agendas and reports from hundreds of cities and towns in Vermont. We have over 150,000 documents now. We’re doing the best that we can to extract meaningful, structured data from the blobs of PDFs, Word documents and the most poorly formed HTML you’ve ever seen. We’re finding useful, interesting bits of data in this local legislative soup, Vermont Public Radio is using the information we’re finding to write stories that have been picked up by NPR and the Associated Press.

We’re never going to win the battle though. The upstream source is so polluted. We need to clean things up. I’m starting to flesh out an open source meeting management tool (Muni Meeting) that is specifically designed for Municipalities and how they run meetings. The primary benefits to a town being:

* Reduce meeting taker and organizer time
* Real time publishing of notes – zero publish time
* eDelivery of Meeting Packets (Police Officers usually hand these out manually)
* No need to convert Word docs and flatbed scanner documents to PDF
* View voting histories, profiles
* Record meeting audio via iPhone and Android apps
* Meeting topic trends
* Searchable meetings
* Low-cost or FREE tool
* Open source, open APIs for data
* Useful, structured data and information for analysis

There is a closed source, commercial vendor in this space called Granicus. They build decent tools, they have an API (limited non-public access) but they create an expensive, closed and complicated tool. It is a tool for larger cities and towns. Towns with closed circuit camera systems and $40,000,000+ budgets. Most towns in the United States have fewer than 30,000 residents. These are the towns where a Selectboard meeting might take place in a library or in a kitchen of a member. These smaller towns pass important laws and ordinances that are rarely noticed in our busy lives. Democracy is happening in public view, but we just don’t see it.

If you have gotten this far it’s likely that you’d be interested in talking with us about we’re dreaming up. I’d love to collaborate with others on this.

“My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government. We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.” — BARACK OBAMA

Anyone interested? matt.macdonald@gmail.com.

Matt MacDonald