Talking Democracy Data

Yesterday, I attended an event at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. We talked about a number of things revolving political data from municipal governments. We opened with some presentations on current projects and standardization efforts from the Sunlight Foundation and Open North. I presented on volunteer work done in Philly and Chicago on Councilmatic, and on work that we have been doing at OpenPlans around public meeting data, specifically with Meeting Matters. Granicus was a valuable participant in this part of the meeting as well — a sort of proxy for city concerns. They have a useful perspective on understanding the value of open data, but balancing that with the concerns of their clients.

Journalists were the stars of the conversation, at least from where I was sitting. Their explanations of what they would want to use standardized, open democracy data for was like a mini user focus group — something many people in the room clearly wanted more of. Repeatedly over the past few months, I’ve eavesdropped on or participated in conversations about how there’s not enough user research done in civic software. Having the journalists’ comments so well-received underscored this fact for me yet again. At OpenPlans, we have been making an increased effort to include user research as an integral part of our software development process. It is something that often gets passed over in civic software, especially volunteer run and supported projects.

@mckinneyjames, @philipashlock, and @jamesturk

We closed with everyone sharing something that they appreciated from the day, something they were frustrated or disappointed by, and something that they will do going forward. One thing I wished for out of the day was more use cases for democracy data from outside of the journalistic profession — from activists, community organizers, even within government itself. However, we didn’t really have representation from outside of journalistic and technology circles in the conversation. The dearth of city employees was a strong disappointment on its own.

Everyone appreciated the company that was convened. It is a good feeling to be in a room full of people who are sincerely concerned about many of the same things as you, and who are motivated to do something about it. It’s something special when people continue to share ideas long after the facilities crew kicks you out to break down the room.

For me, going forward, I had two primary take-aways:

  1. Do user testing with the Councilmatic project. It has been a wonderful experiment thus far to simply see where different features take me, but something Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center, said about journalism stuck with me, and I feel is directly transferable to civic software:

  1. At OpenPlans, we don’t often consider journalists the uses for our software by journalists, though they are a prime target for both benefiting from and enhancing any civic tool. We should keep them more in mind as we design our software going forward.