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OpenGov Voices: 3 simple ways cities can improve access to online information

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the guest blogger and those providing comments are theirs alone and do not reflect the opinions of the Sunlight Foundation or any employee Matt MacDonaldthereof. Sunlight Foundation is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information within the guest blog.

Matt MacDonald is the co-founder and president at NearbyFYI. NearbyFYI collects city government data and documents, helping make local government information accessible and understood. He can be reached at matt@nearbyfyi.com. Matt is also one of the winners of Sunlight Foundation’s OpenGov Grants.

At NearbyFYI we review online information and documents from hundreds of city and town websites. Our CityCrawler service has found and extracted text from over 100,000 documents for the more than 170 Vermont cities and towns that we track. We're adding new documents and municipal websites all the time, and we wanted to share a few tips that make it easier for citizens to find meeting minutes, permit forms and documents online. The information below is written for a non-technical audience but some of the changes might require assistance from your webmaster, IT department or website vendor.

Create a unique web page for each document or form

Each city or town meeting that occurs should have its own unique web page for agenda items, meeting minutes and other documents. We often see cities and towns creating a single, very large web page that contains an entire year of meeting minutes. This may be convenient for the person posting the meeting minutes online but presents a number of challenges for the citizen who is trying to find a specific meeting agenda or the minutes from that meeting.

Here is an example of meeting minutes that are in a single page that requires the citizen to scroll and scroll to find what they are looking for. This long archived page structure also presents challenges to web crawlers and tools that look to create structured information from the text. Proctor, VT provides a good example for what we look for in a unique meeting minutes document. We like that this document can answer the following questions:

  1. Which town created the document? (Proctor)

  2. What type of document is this? (Meeting Minutes)

  3. Which legislative body is responsible for the document (Selectboard)

  4. When was the meeting? (November 27, 2012 - it's better to use a full date format like this)

  5. Which board members attended the meeting? (Eric, Lloyd, Vincent, Bruce, William)

The only thing that could improve the access to this document is if it was saved as a plain text file rather than a PDF file. Creating a single web page or document for each meeting means that citizens don't have to scan very large documents to find what they are looking for.

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