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Tag Archive: PDFs

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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OpenGov Voices: Local Government Financial Transparency: Scaling It Up

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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 Joffe_Headshot_1Sunlight Foundation or any employee thereof. Sunlight Foundation is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information within the guest blog.

Marc Joffe is the founder of Public Sector Credit Solutions (PSCS) which applies open data and analytics to rating government bonds. Before starting PSCS, Marc was a Senior Director at Moody’s Analytics. You can contact him at marc@publicsectorcredit.org.

Groups like OpenOakland and Open City have done some great work in making local government financial data more accessible. Machine readable data sets and visualizations help citizens better understand how their tax money is being used.

Because these efforts typically require volunteers and/or visionary political leaders, they tend to focus on individual governmental units. Since the U.S. has some 80,000 local governments, it is unlikely that these standalone projects will give us anything like nationwide transparency of local government fiscal data. Building a nationwide open data set would be very beneficial because it would allow users to compare their city or county to comparable units across the country. It could answer such questions as “how does our public safety spending stack up against other cities with similar population and crime rate?” It could also allow us to compare the fiscal condition of cities in order to see which are headed in the direction of Detroit, Harrisburg, San Bernardino and Stockton – toward bankruptcy.

ca_credit_scoring_mapA Mountain View California based company, OpenGov.com, is working with several local governments to place their fiscal data online, in graphical form. If successful, this firm could greatly increase the amount of open government financial data – for those governments that are willing to subscribe to their transparency service.

But what about situations in which a local government is unwilling to cooperate and volunteers are unavailable? This universe is likely to include some of the more fiscally irresponsible governments in places that lack tech-savvy, engaged citizens.

In these cases, we can collect and report data on behalf of those governments. Recently, my group, Public Sector Credit Solutions, collected legally mandated financial reports from 260 city governments in California. We extracted standardized data from these reports and placed the information online for free here. We’d love to work with other groups to roll out this type of fiscal transparency to other types of local governments (like counties and regional transportation districts) and to the rest of the country.

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