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eCitizens: Like Google Alerts for Local Gov Docs - using your keywords

eCitizens helps local municipal government make their records available, searchable and usable by anyone! We get and store agendas, minutes and reports from America's municipalities and alert you when keywords you care about are mentioned.

eCitizens - the local government information alerting source

Our Mission - To provide anyone the information and tools to become more engaged with their local government.

What we Do - We help local municipal government make their records available, searchable and usable!

Prototype Development
The Knight Foundation has supported our current development of this model through their Prototype Fund. We will launch our beta in the City of San Diego by May 2013.

This prototype project is a proof-of-concept phase where we will prove the ability to obtain documents and alert subscribers. Our initial alpha client site is being developed in partnership with the City of San Diego's Mayor Bob Filner, the Director of Open Government, Donna Frye and with technical support from the City of San Diego's IT department. Our secondary focus site will be the County of San Diego. 

How it Works - Three Steps 
There are three simple steps our users will take to gain access to their local governments. They are:

  1. Visit our site and enter keywords or phrases of interest
  2. Specify the individual municipality, group of municipalities or region
  3. Enter an email address to send the alerts.

    Then, when the keywords of interest are found in documents we'll send alerts directly to the user with links back to the source documents. 

    If users find an issue they want to track individually they can click a link to 'Follow' that item. They will then receive alerts whenever that item is mentioned.

  • Our News Challenge Submission

The following is an outline of our plan to scale our prototype across the nation. We also discuss potential features we may develop in the next two years based on  our user's engagement, analysis and feedback.  

What's the Pain? User's Experience Without eCitizens Tools

  • As citizens, we typically learn about government actions through media – after the item has long-passed the time for community input or, has concluded entirely
  • We are often unaware when topics of interest surface or understand their historical context such as all the previous work done on the issue
  • Many citizens have little understanding of the process of local government, potential alternatives to the declared position of government or if there are any  opportunities for participatory engagement.
  • Even though citizens could add great value to the conversation oftentimes as subject matter experts we are often avoided by elected officials and staff 
  • Our newest immigrants and Americans not yet proficiently speaking English miss out on the opportunity to learn about and engage with their community.
  • Government staff are typically under-resourced and under-budgeted, overwhelmed with redundant stakeholder requests and in general are very busy dealing with myriad topics and people representing a wide swath of interests. 

    What's the Result? User's Experience With eCitizens Tools
    With the eCitizens alerting tools anyone has the ability to create alerts for their own search terms or, follow individual items of interest. This results in:

  • We gain more clarity on issues, actions and opportunities to engage
  • We have more time to form more intelligent analysis, structure a positive response, organize support and see desired actions through.
  • We experience increased confidence and trust in our elected officials
  • Our non-English speaking residents are included inboth the conversation and engagement opportunities with our government until they master our language.  
  • There is less backroom dealing by government officials and special interests
  • Government staffers experience reduction in public records requests, redundant emails and phone calls
  • Government is appreciative of more thoughtful collaboration, and positive experiences of citizen-voters

Core Elements

Target Municipalities

Initially, our primary focus is directed at America’s county, city and town municipal governments. Our secondary focus is on special districts such as school and public safety districts.

Target Documents and Records
We focus on obtaining governance, legislative and department calendars, agendas, minutes, and related documents. When considering a typical municipality the categories of these records will include budgeting and finance, development and planning, public safety, parks and recreation and business development documents.

eCitizens Library – Documents and Video

  • We will promote our service to subscriber-municipalities or, and any third-party service provider already in place
  • For subscribing municipalities, we will scrape or obtain documents and video via an API 
  • For non-subscribing municipalities, we will encourage their staff or civic-hackers such as CodeForAmerica Brigades, to push their documents and video to our server at no cost. We will work to convert these municipalities to paying subscribers and will offer various value-added services to incentivize them.
  • We are building our system following existing open-source technologies developed by the Sunlight Foundation through OpenStates and Scout. This includes our scrapers, databases, languages and functions. Our intent is to provide a seamless data path by focusing on local government while Sunlight Foundation focuses on state and federal government documents and records. 
  • We provide open and free access to all source code, scripts, document and video records through our Application Programming Interface (API)
  • Upon the conclusion of a five-year window we will transfer the eCitizens Library to a suitable non-profit such as the Sunlight Foundation, that will guarantee open access and perpetual sustainability.


Semantic Analysis, Video Sub-Titling and Language Translation

  • We will build and integrate semantic analysis tools to help us identify entities and enhance our search results and offer additional filtering capabilities
  • We will develop a fee-based interactive function, supported by another Knight-funded organization Amara.org, to professionally sub-title or, closed-caption video content. This will give us the ability to offer users an alert when keywords are mentioned in meetings and not just when they are found documents.    
  • We will develop a fee-based system begin building and implementing machine-based and outsourced document and video translation services.

Market Focus
We will target the over two dozen document management systems service providers already serving thousands of America's most technologically advanced communities. We'll partner with them using their open API's or develop scripts that will allow us to more easily scrape all of their municipality sites.

We do not intend to compete with these organizations as we are focused on a narrow facet - documents and records. Our belief is America needs more enterprise-level solutions, proprietary or ideally open-source, to address the entire needs of our municipalities. Our service therefore ties in nicely with existing infrastructure rather than trying to replace this infrastructure at the same time.

We believe we will receive strong stakeholder buy-in and engagement because we are building on an open-source platform and give anyone free access to every document, record, dataset and video we obtain. 

Lower barriers of entry for stakeholders will result in quicker pathways to social and economic solutions. The result is more interest from free-market enterprises who will compete, against eCitizens as well as each other, to build the best tools to put this data to use. The winners are citizens, non-profits and organizations working to create a better America. Ultimately, the social and economic value of this information is limitless. 

Our Team

eCitizens was founded by Jerry Hall, a social entrepreneur is on a mission to use his thirteen-year web-development and other business skills to develop creative open-government solutions. Over the past six years Jerry has served his local community on a variety of boards and organizations. He's cut his teeth on organizing various initiatives including community forums, graffiti paint-outs, fundraising for police and fire departments. He currently serves as the President of his local Rotary Club and sits on a county advisory board. Jerry is on a mission to peel back the layers of local government processes, beginning with free and open meeting records, to help every citizen better understand how government works, how they can participate and ultimately how their influence can shape their local communities. You can reach Jerry on Twitter @ecitizensorg or LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/datajuncture/
_______________________________________________________
Michael P. Richo is eCitizens newest team member. Michael is an innovative programmer with over fifteen years experience in systems support for commercial, governmental, and academic environments. He specializes in high-level database development, data mining and high-throughput data processing. He has developed sophisticated skills fueled by his passion to build effective tools in new territories. Ever since his first position at an ISP in 1998, Michael has been engaged in data mining activity. Michael shows a love for processing unorganized data into a structured database and making analysis decisions. Michael served as the Informatics Resource Specialist for the Yale Center for High Throughput Cell Biology. While there, Michael developed software for informatics research using advanced data mining and cutting edge high-throughput data processing techniques. Michael's deep understanding of large data concepts and problem solving, as well as his ability to create new solutions was recognized and provided a great resource for the Yale community.
_______________________________________________________
Sameer Suruguri, our newest team member, hails from the Bay area. We're excited to have Sameer on our team because of his unique skills in search as well as product development leadership.

Sameer has extensive experience in the Internet sector, in product management, account management and professional services.

His specialties include product management experience in Web-based consumer and enterprise application companies; adept understanding of social media, content management systems, platform APIs, developer community management, and Internet analytics. He is well-versed in the sciences and applications of knowledge management, text analysis and search technologies and markets; creative writing, acting and directing skills.

Sameer worked for over three and one-half years on the Microsoft Bing development team as a Senior Program Manager focusing on news and multimedia search relevance as well as search quality.

Sameer is interested in leading product teams to building consumer Internet products. We are excited to have Sameer initially on-board as an advisor, and with this funding we anticipate Sameer becoming a more fully engaged partner.
You can catch up with Sameer on Twitter @siruguri and LinkedIn at http://www.linkedin.com/in/sameersiruguri/   
_______________________________________________________
Our prototype-development team consists of Jerry Hall, Jed Sundwall of Measured Voice and Mjumbe Poe of OpenPlans and author of Councilmatic. More about our prototype development team can be found here.

We have several advisors who have agreed to mentor us throughout the development of this business model. Additionally, we have candidates in consideration for longer-term leadership roles. We have not made those decisions until we are more clear on this and other funding opportunities. 

We have extensive research and content to clarify the need for or, expand on any of the items outlined in this proposal.

Thank you for your support!

What is your project? [1 sentence max]

We help anyone stay in tune with local government by collecting, analyzing and storing documents like meeting agendas and minutes, and alerting subscribers when things they care about are mentioned.

Where are you located?

San Diego / California / United States

How did you hear about the contest?

  1. In-person event in my area
  2. Email from Knight Foundation
  3. Knight Foundation website
Jerry's profile photo
entry submitted by: Jerry Hall
February 24, 2013, 01:10PM
1171 views 20 comments 14 applause Applaud

Comments

Join the conversation and post a comment.

March 26, 2013, 01:47PM
Jerry,

I think this provides a great service to city and county residents and would love the opportunity to meet in the middle of Federal and local districts.

John
Jerry Hall's reply to John Thibault's comment
March 26, 2013, 04:44PM
Thanks for the feedback John. We're looking to build our prototype and the v1.0+ with support from Knight, with that intent in mind. That is, to provide a seamless path between our model and that of the OpenStates.org model, which Scout.SunlightFoundation.com draws upon.

Our hope is that this data can be used to allow anyone to follow candidates and elected officials, as well as the myriad data that can be extracted from the local documents, from local municipal roles on through State and Federal positions. Their votes, procurements, relationships with those filing disclosure statements etc. can all be more easily tied together. Although we're not offering that service this is one of the tools we hope others will develop off off our open API.
March 26, 2013, 01:03PM
Jerry,

That sounds great I look forward to collaborating with you.

Nole
March 26, 2013, 10:53AM
Jerry,

I am very interested in your e-document idea and I am wondering if you have given much thought to how people might provide feedback?It seems like a web-service to a CRM or other public forum could boost this. Our idea https://www.newschallenge.org/open/open-government/submission/-yourslc-your-salt-lake-city-a-public-participation-platform-for-innovative-engagement-tools/ uses Peak Democracy and UserVoice both of which I think could compliment your project.

Cheers,
Nole
Jerry Hall's reply to John Thibault's comment
March 26, 2013, 12:40PM
Hi Nole,

Thanks for your message. Our hope is that others will use our open-API and connect the supporting documents we provide to empower their users to contribute more purposefully. Our focus has to be on the Herculean effort of collecting, analyzing and indexing the documents and alerting our users. Tempting as it may be, we're concerned that layering other facets of the engagement process will delay us from becoming a widespread of a service as possible - at the earliest opportunity. We believe we'll provide the greatest value if we focus on this alone.

What this means is that we would love to be a resource to you as well. That means, when your users are commenting on the various SLC initiatives they can be basing their dialog around the actual documents. We had been exploring a way for others to embed document sets into their websites but, saw this as a more second-tier focus. This would allow an organization such as yourSLC to place those docs right on the relevant pages.

In any case we hope to collaborate with you when our API is released to explore this opportunity!
March 23, 2013, 06:52PM
As someone who has experienced many of the pain points you've described, I'm very excited to see the potential of eCitizens realized. The buzz that this is generating is well deserved.
Jerry Hall's reply to John Thibault's comment
March 23, 2013, 07:29PM
Thanks for the thumbs up Robin! I did procurement long ago and have been pretty active on local issues for the last 6+ years and these are all ones I've felt as well. What I didn't describe is that I'm channeling all the exasperation and frustration into something positive like this. I often wonder how entirely a good portion of our country is in the dark with local government. That is, they don't understand the language, are too intimidated to go downtown and would certainly never file a public records request. This should allow anyone with a computer to peer into their government and ideally use all the participatory tools in this challenge more effectively. Thanks again!
March 22, 2013, 03:27PM
We've updated our proposal again. Our goal is to create a lean document indexing and alerting service. One tool you'll notice pared out is the DocumentCloud interface. We love this sophisticated tool but, believe most of our users won't take advantage of it's benefits.

We added our newest team member Mike Richo. Mike helped create a 'Rosetta Stone' of the human genome map for Yale University and has myriad innovative development skills. We're excited to have Mike on our team!

We've met with some amazing collaborators who have agreed to mentor us or, who may be available to join our team. We're also developing some great relationships in the municipal service-provider industry.

It's really a kick to see people's eyes light up as soon as we explain what we do. It's a trick but, fun to find the words that turn a quirky software solution to a home run in people's minds. What we love is when they break in and say "OMG - do you know how much non-profits could use this?" We're on the right track and appreciate your feedback to refine this to an optimum service. Thanks!
March 19, 2013, 04:03PM
Given that we're implementing Councilmatic in Oakland we're excited about what this potential means for our city and others close by!
Jerry Hall's reply to John Thibault's comment
March 19, 2013, 04:28PM
Awesome Steve. We were inspired with our Prototype Team member Mjumbe Poe who authored Councilmatic.

Being new to the entire open-source and open-government world is a bit scary. I used OS all my life but, developing OS solutions and building a business upon them, in the open, then offering an open API to the content, has been a little more scary as my competitive roots say to keep all of these things close to my vest.

That being said this is an exciting time because this openness rewards the best application or solution by nature rather than by ownership. I was just up in SF / Oakland / Palo Alto... feels like home up there (a techie in every corner lol).
March 18, 2013, 09:36PM
I'm anxious to see this in action, Jerry.

It seems like the really attractive part of this idea is in the alerts system and the effort to notify people when a keyword they care about is triggered. My question is: What's the trigger? Is it only when a new document related to the topic is posted?

Say you want alerts for "Barrio Logan Community Plan" -- are you getting notified of just new agendas posted or older documents as well? If the alerts are also for archived content, that could get overwhelming, but it's pretty incomplete without archives. .

And I share the desire to tackle this frustration of residents: "Little understanding of process, alternatives or opportunities for participatory engagement."

But how will the alerts do this? Even journalists struggle to address this working full time. Explaining things is an art and a skill. Municipal documents can be very difficult to understand without a guide and translator of the jargon.

I think the vision is a strong one. I'm just curious how these things will work. I hope we can see it realized.
Jerry Hall's reply to John Thibault's comment
March 19, 2013, 02:00AM
Hi Scott - thanks for your feedback. We're excited to serve the media because we know well that these kind of tools are a great fit. To answer your questions:

- Typically we'll scrape city websites on a nightly basis so our subscribers wake up with alerts in their email. When we're linked in to the API of the document management system like Granicus my belief is we can get much closer to real-time, polling the site every few hours for instance. How important is it to get alerts of City Council documents close to real-time or, does receiving them the following morning work?

- We're starting with current records and then looking back to begin populating the database with legacy docs. In our local case we have several document file-systems to work with so it will take some time. How many years would you like to go back initially. Also, what documents are most important to you? City Council, budget, public safety etc.? You gave me an idea in that we could take special requests from our users to help us focus on what matters to them first so we can prioritize our focus on various legacy records.

- Regarding the process, alternatives and participatory elements these are pains the users have that we believe our service helps first to get the documents on a timely basis. Second, we are looking to collaborate with others that will help deliver a 'process map' where citizens can learn the steps in local gov i.e. budgets, changing an ordinance etc. We'd like to help citizens understand the context of the document. I.e. is it a committee report, first or second council reading? This was one of the elements we trimmed back on so we could focus on the docs however I believe there's another News Challenge entrant discussing this tool.

Another idea is we can provide a profile page for every municipality that would have links to common records (charter, muni code, org chart, elected officials and links, city website etc.) On this profile page we could provide basic 'how-it-works' flow charts (i.e. http://www.sandiego.gov/development-services/devprocess/pdf/decisionprocess.pdf). This page could also have links to services such as the one you proposed in the News Challenge where the users could click to add their comments to various current actions.

This all being said the main point is we start small and think big (not my quote :). We know from experience how tough it's going to be but we also know the first step is the alerts to agendas - getting people to the right meetings with the right support docs in their hands. This alone will be a great organizing tool. Second we begin analyzing the documents for named entities and begin linking them together - so clicking on a local issue or topic such as 'medical marijuana' would link you to documents from back in the mid-1990's.

It was one of my frustrations working on the beach alcohol issue that there were people working on the issue since 1990. I hunted for nearly a year to build the collection of documents I did (including about 100 documents) which helped put our efforts and the argument in context. This work is all sitting on my blog and computer. With this tool these documents could be linked semantically and would provide others with great detail.

The other big media related tool is the DocumentCloud interface. This will allow your writers to build collections and display actual city documents, marked up and annotated by the reporter and embedded right in the story. This will give readers the ability to nearly touch the documents themselves.
 
So, we're excited to be supporting the media and look to you to give us guidance as to how we can best serve you.
March 16, 2013, 01:31PM
This proposal has been a work in progress and v3.0. We're looking forward to any comments on how we can best deliver this service and be a resource others can use!
March 14, 2013, 06:25PM
The idea that the 'regular Joe' can get access to documents they believe are important to them without needing to jump through the hoops of traditional jurisdictions and municipalities is refreshing! Projects like this enable individuals to become involved and informed citizens-on their terms- which is engaging! Documents which are intended/required to be public are often buried in so much red-tape and bureaucracy that even the most savvy individuals struggle to become educated. This program will provide public access to these documents, on specific criteria, which could be seen as beneficial to those municipalities that understand the ideals of accountability and transparency. This project needs to be funded and could serve as a model for others. Public being aware of important issues within their community + Public invited/encouraged to become engaged in community decisions = Positive Outcomes.
Jerry Hall's reply to John Thibault's comment
March 15, 2013, 09:14PM
Thanks Aly! I updated our post to hopefully better illustrate our approach. I agree as well that this is just the tool to help open up government to citizens and advocacy groups - ideally encouraging them to engage more intelligently and more often!
February 25, 2013, 07:34PM
Love the idea, and I'm intrigued by some possibilities for sustainability. You're right that it would be tough to peel government agencies away from traditional document management services, but you've also got an opportunity to disrupt that space in interesting ways.

You're clearly more transparency-focused than conventional document management services, so there might be opportunities to provide services to governments that fall along those lines. Managing, indexing and adding metadata to public agendas and other notices comes to mind. If you can find a way to meet particular government needs in a clever way, you might be able to develop a line of enterprise services that could help keep the lights on. Just a thought!
Jerry Hall's reply to John Thibault's comment
February 25, 2013, 08:35PM
Hey Chase. Thanks for these ideas. I think sustainability is the crux of the issue but, that it won't take unreal amounts of funds to maintain the document repository. I believe we can generate enough revenue offering this as a service to municipalities to reduce their public-records fulfillment burdens but, more importantly to open communication channels internally - literally de-politicizing the information sharing element of gov. They'll naturally resist, withhold documents, post them late but, those things can all be monitored and ultimately identified by local change agents. These local entities can help their local gov evolve into a more open system.

The other key element is that the docs should remain free and that anyone, ideally us because we have our finger on the pulse of our gov clients but, ultimately anyone can create the killer app based on the information library we're providing and start selling it to gov, industry or citizens. Market forces will take hold and support the best solution.

I too believe that if we front (face-off) existing enterprise entities we will be in a world of hurt. We don't believe building a customer-support based system for a free document management system is efficient. Rather I'd like to focus on creating the standard, opening the repository, and encouraging any citizen or gov to push their docs up into the eCitizens repo.

Some municipalities may have to withhold some docs (i.e. municipal codes created by third party providers) but, have no issue posting agendas and minutes. Others may not want to post their agendas and minutes because third party providers launch a competing service to ours. Fine. The point is the citizens are being alerted. I believe once we are determined to not be a threat, that the benefits of sharing 'their' docs will be realized by these providers, gov, industry and citizens and they will in turn point them in our direction.

So, I'm not big on knocking the enterprise industry. They know government. They have a long history working with them. Financial relationships have been developed and they are no doubt in long-term contractual relationships. Partnering with existing gov and enterprise-industry entities seems to be the path of least resistance insofar as the services we're proposing, and one that will benefit the most citizens the soonest. Ultimately isn't that all of our goal, to get information into the hands of citizens and the dev-industry that are seeking to create social and civic improvements?
February 24, 2013, 03:43PM
Phewf that was a mouthful! But an interesting one :)

I take this to be something like a Document Cloud for Government; is that a reasonable five-word-summary?

The biggest questions in my head after reading this are:

1) You mention partnership third party data vendors; do you have any sense of how difficult that will be to accomplish? How scalable will those partnerships be? What percent of government data goes through those types of organizations?

^ Basically this application relies on lots of data which has a reputation of being very difficult to access. What makes you confident that your proposed approach will be effective?

2) Are there any plans for specific need-based applications that would be built on top of this data once you have it (what will / could make this a vital tool for average citizens). Basically; how do get non-wonks to benefit from this?

All in all this is great, and I'm looking forward to watching the idea evolve (and the prototype get built out).
Jerry Hall's reply to John Thibault's comment
February 24, 2013, 04:21PM
Hi Dan,

Thanks for your message. It's a lot more than DocumentCloud in that DC is simply the dashboard and repository. The alerting, sub-titling and translation services are all unique. Also, DC is built on OpenCalais which is a proprietary software whereas we're using Stanford's open-source NLP process.

As for the data vendors we have a good relationship with the most contemporary of them all in Granicus and are in initial introductory phases with several more.

Our most specific tool benefiting citizens, NGO's, lobbyists and special interests as well as government staffers themselves - is the alerting tool. Anyone can subscribe with keywords or phrases and receive alerts anytime those words are mentioned. There's a number of service levels we can offer there all depending on the user base.

Does this answer your questions? I'm interested in all feedback so fire away! Thanks again,

Jerry
Jerry Hall's reply to John Thibault's comment
February 24, 2013, 04:52PM
Hi Dan,

A couple other points. We believe civic-hackers around the nation will help write scripts to extract local-gov documents in their area. Our goal is to provide the repository and fill it with all hands on deck. Another idea we had was a Reddit type ranking system people could use to vote up or down top priority municipalities we would focus on.

We're not yet sure what percent of government data goes through existing data management systems. We do know from many years of personal experience that a vast amount comes through our city government as our City Council and their Committees are the group that all the other departments and agencies report to. Those reports then would make their way into our system as they would be attached to various agendas and minutes.

Other key documents we intend to obtain and feed are crime statistics - which we will initially offer from data every municipality sends the FBI. Business permits and building permits are many times openly available or, may take some work to obtain.

The bottom line is we believe building the repository, working together to identify and develop known or new standards and systematically populating the database is something all of us can get our arms around. There are many other datasets that municipalities will produce and could one day be included into such a system but, our primary goal is the governance documents, then the other datasets mentioned then all else.

Thanks,

Jerry
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