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Knight News Challenge Public Meetings Submission -

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Knight News Challenge Public Meetings Submission


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Back to Public Meetings

This was the drafting zone for our invited Round Two submission - NOW for 2011

Project Title: Liberating Public Meetings Online - Personalized, Geo-Aware E-Alerts for All

Requested amount from Knight News Challenge: 500

Expected amount of time to complete project: 3

Total cost of project including all sources of funding: 1,000,000

Describe your project:

Enter Address: Enter Interest Keywords: You will now receive e-alerts on upcoming agenda items at government public meetings near you that matter you. To publicly comment (text, voice or video) or rate the comments of others on upcoming public meetings, search meetings here. Are you an elected official? Set your profile to conveniently receive digests of public comments or "virtual testimony" with popularity ratings on agenda items before you vote. To eventually cover all 30,000 government bodies in the U.S., you need at least $66 a government. Video description:

How will your project improve the way news and information are delivered to geographic communities?

Improving timely access to decision-making information from government when the you can still act on it is highly democratizing. Today most people find out about key decisions via the media after it is too late or with cut backs in newsrooms, never. "PublicMeetings.Info" will create a distributed data aggregation and syndication system based on open standards and open source technology to provide the public universal access to public meeting notices, agendas, and more via media and other civic partners across the nation. Creating a shared based of public data on meetings will allow local media sites to cost-effectively host the public meeting event calendar of the 21st Century that can build in greater engagement and accountability.

How is your idea innovative? (new or different from what already exists)

By law, open meetings are the only places for a quorum of a public body to meet. Governments are using this as an excuse NOT to host public online interactivity. By moving meetings agendas into the interactive Web 2.0 environment, more people will be informed and empowered to act. There is no online utility that allows the public to follow public meetings from multiple jurisdictions that govern them. By leveraging lessons from scraping Federal websites and developing adaptive scrapers for the 30,000 local government bodies in the United States, initial data will be collected rapidly with mixed quality but still useful. For the long-term an open standard for geo-coding agendas will be established to allow direct aggregation from government.

What experience do you or your organization have to successfully develop this project? has 16+ years experience with the use of technology to provide democratic information and civic engagement. We recently attracted modest Ford Foundation funding to start an initiative called Participation 3.0 - - in 2010. Included in this project is an exploration into ideas related to local government transparency and accountability through online information dissemination and public engagement. PublicMeetings.Info is our pilot project for convening and open specification work which will lead to detailed proposals and requests for funding to fully implement. While it unrealistic to cover all 30,000 government bodies in the U.S. quickly, with the right partnership building and engagement of inter-governmental association as well as media associations, most Americans would be able to easily alerted about most of the meetings (and agenda items of interest) being held by governments that their taxes support. is led by Steven Clift - - who has extensive experience bridging between the civic engagement and media world as well as his role as the founder and coordinator of the State of Minnesota's first government portal.

What unmet need does your proposal answer?

(7 characters remaining)

Public meetings are functionally inaccessible to the average citizen. Agendas are scattered across many websites and few offer any form of geographic or personalized notification. Timely access to meeting information is extremely democratizing because it allows someone to act on that information before a decision is taken. Structured online input encourages convenient any time, anywhere local participation. Today only upcoming meeting covered by the local media are well known - typically on controversial matters leading to the least constructive form of local engagement - the adversarial meeting with outraged protest and unresponsive officials. The diatribe as entertainment local online news comment model also requires alternatives.

2011 Questions

  • What tasks/benchmarks need to be accomplished to develop your project and by when will you complete them? *
    • 500 word(s) remaining
  • How will you measure progress?: *
    • 500 word(s) remaining
  • Do you see any risk in the development of your project?: *
    • 500 word(s) remaining
  • How will people learn about what you are doing?: *
    • 500 word(s) remaining
  • Is this a one-time experiment or do you think it will continue after the grant?: *
    • 500 word(s) remaining
  • In addition to the Knight News Challenge, does your project rely on other revenue sources? (Choose all that apply):

Advertising Paid Subscriptions Crowd-Funded Earned Income Syndication Other

Need to check with questions below ...

What tasks/benchmarks need to be accomplished to develop your project and by when will you complete them?

(1748 characters of 2000 remaining)

During 3 year grant: (YR1) 1. Convene four+ key constituencies - media, open government advocates, government, open source technologists - in project 2. Gather input via draft open standard - for public meeting agendas and related documents and recordings. Leverage iCal/etc. standards. 3. Prototype and evaluate use in St. Paul/Minneapolis and other interested communities (local media partners/volunteers key) with PublicMeetings.Info data sharing site. Site combines web "scraping" of many government websites with data conversion to open standard. (YR2) 4. Extend prototype to deliver full commenting/rating experience as detailed in "Describe your project" field and video. 5. Train elected officials and the staff on how to receive customized summaries of comments from their constituents prior to votes and how to explain their votes as publicly requested. 6. Uniquely share XML/etc. data with anyone including local media sites to competitively serve the public. Most external local data collection efforts build data fortresses replicating government resistance to sharing raw data. (YR3) 7. Design intelligent scrapers to cover slower governments. 8. National awareness campaign. 9. Increase data aggregation (v. scraping) via open standard adoption with larger local governments and government technology providers who service thousands of governments. 10. Educate state legislatures and clerks (school districts, city, county) on the necessity of updating open meeting laws to require electronic notification, use of standards, and provision of web services to governments for this service. May include model legislation drafting and promotion of statewide government supported notification services (software as service) like Rhode Island. 11. Commission extensive evaluation and review.

What will you have changed by the end of your project?

(1498 of 1800 characters remaining)

Local democracy, everywhere. The current technology-driven hype around publishing open data sets from government for reuse is engaging a few interested large local governments. Most Americans are not served by those governments and most of us are being left behind when it comes to serving the information needs communities in a democracy. However, this project will raise the profile of access to decision-making process government information and data within "that movement" to extend its focus beyond crime, transit, and other service related data. The timing to launch this project is ideal. Ultimately, more accessible and relevant public meeting processes will help officials make better decisions and allocate scare public resources more effectively. Despite their flaws, public meetings are the cornerstone of local decision-making and need to be pulled into the Web 2.0 era to be pulled from obscurity. As millions of Americans come to learn about upcoming agenda items on a timely basis that interest them, they will both have the opportunity to influence decisions (and compete the lobbyists and interests who normally are connected and in the know all ready). More Americans will comment publicly (online and off) on decisions to be taken as well as be held to account by their peers who may have other ideas. This increased openness will lead to greater trust in local institutions (not just government) and the ability of their community to solve problems and meet public challenges.

How will you measure progress and ultimately success?

(1598 of 1600 characters remaining)

The ultimate measure - By 2020, all public meeting agendas and documents for every public body (30,000 x committees) in U.S. are online in a standard format AND aggregated into many local and national services that encourage personalized notification, online public input, and improved official representative government decision-making processes. Reaching 50% of public bodies will be a major accomplishment and serve millions. Prototype progress will be measured by the number and percent of government bodies covered in the initial area, the expansion of areas covered (more local scraping efforts), the number of people using the system to monitor or comment on public meetings, the number of elected officials/staff set-up with "listening" accounts to review and respond to public comments/questions, evidence that uniquely "linkable" and mashable public meeting agenda items are being used in the "Web 2.0 ecology" and requests to cover new communities. The open standard process will be measured by input received in drafting, ease of use in our prototype with data conversion, reaction to adoption of open standard by governments in our prototype area and local governments around the country who provide open data catalogs, adoption by government technology vendors competing for business by supporting open standards, and ultimately the adoption of the standard widely by governments (this could become a global standard and leverage global open source innovation). Sustainability requires adoption by government, media, and others in a distributed fashion NOT a central site.

Do you see any risk in the development of your project?

(1796 of 1800 characters remaining)

This project involves significant risk and is fraught with barriers to adoption. Funding this proposal will be audacious. There is absolutely no evidence that governments have an inclination to make decision-making processes more accessible online. Elected officials who deliver of promises of greater transparency are very few. In government, the focus is related more to collecting taxes online not giving a people a say on how their taxes are spent. Most local elected officials are not being supported technologically by the local administration in their "governance" role and must rely social media and online tools privately or from their campaign. This proposal brings interactivity (even if comments are hosted on .org and local media sites more so than government websites) into the heart of local political processes. Anonymous comments on local websites can easily be dismissed as uncivil and ignored, while comments tied to real names (our default with moderated whistleblower options secondary) and peer ratings will give those who speak and rate the opportunity to shape local public opinion before votes are taken. This is about power. Many of those in power will not see the long-term benefits of a more accessible local representative democracy because the transition to openness brings out fear of the unknown. In terms of the local media, this content provides an exciting opportunity to host a living public meeting calendar both online and in-print. Again, there is little evidence that they see this as an "eye-ball" attracting service that would generate ad revenue or there would be micro-examples of this service in operation. Will millions of Americans gain greater access to public meeting information so they can act on agenda items that interest them? Fund us and find out.

What is your marketing plan? How will people learn about what you are doing?

(0 of 1800 characters remaining)

Via our innovative Participation 3.0 "next generation local online civic engagement" initiative, we will market this idea extensively. At this stage it is important to strategically engage those who can make something happen with this idea. From technologists experienced with open standards and government legislative information and decision-making systems to those who can help to rapidly start scraping public meeting data for conversion marketing we must secure both volunteer and paid talent. We are promoting this proposal with a public wiki/information site, an open online working group, and are drafting this second round in the open. We've solicited input from the standards-oriented W3C E-Government Interest Group, presented in January 2010 at the exciting CityCamp "unconference" to gather proposal input, and will take it Transparency Camp in DC in March, the Personal Democracy Forum in June and to many inter-governmental and media oriented conferences. Online, we are promoting the idea via our project blog, the Democracies Onlne Newswire, on Twitter via #edem (e-democracy), #gov20, and #hyperlocal hashtags, via the Sunlight Foundation's SunlightLabs google group, many more places online. The National Association of Government Webmasters (local government) has agreed to forward an announcement to their members. We will ask our top-level White House open government contacts to blog about this initiative. We have online news connections and will engage the "News-Online" online community of practice hosted by Steven Clift. We have a 16+ year history of open source style sharing of lessons to move the field. In terms of reaching public users, local media partners who use the data or embed the services in their websites will be essential to attract an extensive user base.

Is this a one-time experiment or do you think it will continue after the grant?

(1800 characters remaining)

This proposal represents the launch of a long-term initiative. There is considerable excitement about open data sets being provided thus far by fewer than ten major North American cities. There are 854 cities in Minnesota. How many years will it take for cities representing 50% of the population in the United States to provide open data catalog like Washington, DC or San Francisco? Therefore our first year does represent an experimental stage that can be designed to influence these more innovative local governments in a distributed fashion while also "scraping and baking" data to provide service to citizens of smaller local governments with less capacity. Also, there is also no reason the open standard should not be designed to be applicable to all levels of government. If this idea emerges as a top-down Federal standard and is pegged as an "unfunded mandate" rather than bottom-up democratic demand, state and local resistance will be emboldened. What makes our approach innovative and new is a willingness to essentially create a new public data set rather than seek to extract data from government for reuse as closed proprietary destination site. This will make is far easier for us to work with multiple government and media partners in collaboration and an their open and transparent participation in long-term model and support development.

If it is to be self-sustainable, what is the plan for making that happen?

(1800 characters remaining)

The scraping prototype will demonstrate the value quickly while the open standard will move the entire system of data sharing toward an environment that supports citizen-centric access to and personalized notification about public meetings. Updating public meeting laws to require online notification and encouraging state by state open meeting notification systems (likely maintained as Rhode Island by their Secretary of State) and content aggregation will create a far more distributed and sustainable system than a central national data source. Ideally however, the ease of compiling a national open data set will allow major search engines and local media sites alike to provide the public with a window into local democracy. The element which is more difficult to place is the hosting of online public comments on agenda items (and ratings as well as constituent digests delivered before votes to elected officials). While governments themselves should host such comments, our experience is that most will not. With local media, a likely host candidate, their track record with online news comments demonstrates a lack of attention to the basic decorum required for local democratic processes to function usefully. This means that the long-term role of neutral host of public input will require an upgrade in the media's online practices and support for trusted non-profits that guide best practices and serve as a host of last resort. has demonstrated a 16+ year track record of designing online participation systems that are as close to no cost as possible. We will take that approach with this remaining interactive element which will require a publicly spirited hosts to exist in many communities at the level of civility required to provide real value to communities.

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