In those weeks, we’ve learned a lot about what people like and don’t like about the service. This information will help us improve what we think is an important tool for New Yorkers and an example other local news sites might want to follow.
Popular with People, not Politicians
First, by and large, people like it. Even though most of the information — but not all of it — was already scattered about on Gotham Gazette and other sites, readers appreciate having all that data in one place. As someone who, like most editors, usually only hears from readers when they have complaints, I enjoyed getting emails with comments like “love it,” “great new tool,” “great addition to an already fine website,” and so on.
We also received favorable coverage from a number of local news organizations. The New York Daily News ran a story about Councilpedia as did the local cable news channel and some political blogs. The New York Post even used it to call out a councilmember who seems not to have done much work during the last year.
Some of the city officials did not share that enthusiasm. In particular, they did not like the focus on campaign contributions. Our information on this is not original — we took it from the city’s Campaign Finance Board, which keeps track of such things and makes them public on its own. It’s a very useful site. We did, though, sort all that information in an attempt to make it more user friendly and informative. So with Councilpedia, readers can, with two clicks, find out which unions gave money to Councilmember X and which lawyers helped Councilmember Y.
What some council members really, really do not like, apparently, is that we identify contributions from the real estate industry. Real estate — developers, brokers, construction — are probably the most important special interest in NYC politics. Many New York politicians rely on their support. They just hope people won’t notice. Councilpedia makes it a bit harder to keep that secret.
There’s a lesson in there somewhere.
What We’ve Learned
Some of the lessons are already clear to us. One is that, while people visit the site and explore it, they have been slow to post comments. Getting the public to share information and having a discussion about money and politics are key to Councilpedia, so we will try to ramp that up.
In the next week or so, we plan to add a tutorial explaining more fully how to foster user interactions. We also hope to offer some short information sessions on Councilpedia and how to use it. And we expect that fresh information on the site — the list of earmarks for the next fiscal year, for example — will spur more people to get involved.
We’re eager for other suggestions and would appreciate hearing from anyone who has done crowdsourcing and had a good response.
The second lesson: People would like to see more of this. They wonder why we did not include the mayor (Michael Bloomberg is a billionaire, so he doesn’t take campaign contributions). Other readers wanted to see the information on state legislators, judges, and possible mayoral candidates.
More Money, More Monitoring
So would we. The problem, alas, is resources.
Councilpedia has something like 31,000 pages. While some of the data was copied or downloaded, much of it required formatting and tweaking by our technical manager JaVon Rice. And every single campaign contribution to all of the 53 officials in Councilpedia had to be hand-coded by sector and location. This required a large number of interns and freelancers working under the supervision of our city government editor, Courtney Gross. Even with a generous grant from the Knight Foundation, this stretched our resources to the limit and probably beyond.
New York’s state legislature, which has been termed one of the most dysfunctional in the country and is awash is questionable campaign finance shenanigans, represent a tempting target for this type of project. Now if only we had a million dollars to do it…