Knight News Challenge: Local Government Transparency and Connecting the Dots

Team: Cassie Balfour, Caroline Logan, Kaitlyn Patterson

Requested Amount: $50,000

Expected Amount of time to Complete Project: One year

Description of Project:

              Our product is a hyper-localized model of current open government tools. Ultimately, we aim to connect students in Ann Arbor to their local government and make them into constituents local government officials take seriously. Our product will be open source and easy to replicate so it can be used as a model for other areas. The project consists of the aggregation of an immense amount of public data that is paired with a user friendly interface to retrieve information. The database will be created by delving into public records, personal websites, articles, and a bulk of our grant money will be used to FOIA records ordinary citizens don’t have the time or inclination to request themselves. Our extensive database will include records of local government officials, NGOs, and local businesses involved in environmental issues in Ann Arbor. The goal is to encourage people to pay attention to which company representatives are sitting on which boards and who is advocating for their own “hidden” agenda. Our app will focus on environmental issues and look at commissions and policies that deal with issues like clean air standards and recycling.

       The product will operate through an interface in which people can enter queries of political figures or organizations and will generate a report.  The report will include a physical representation of the where each figure holds influence. This includes representation of what boards they sit on, any professional affiliations, and endorsements.  For example, the app may show a simple avatar sitting at the city council “table” but will also map out other places they “sit,” such as the environmental commission. Furthermore, it will bring up a sidebar report of people and organizations who endorsed them or donated money to campaigns. The innovative aspect of our app is that it also works as “six degrees of separation” map, so users can input other names, companies, governmental organizations or non-profits and map out relationships and networks so users can see connections that local news isn’t making.

        Our database will also include facts documented by both federal governmental organizations and non-governmental organizations that reveal Ann Arbor’s carbon emissions, water pollution, recycling facts and other environmental issues that local government is involved in. Users will be able to compare Ann Arbor to the state of Michigan and other cities in the United States using infographics. The database will extend to Ann Arbor environmental statistics and local government officials dating back the last 15 years.

        These tools will help users track changes or stagnation over time and assess if local government is tackling environmental issues effectively. Citizens and students will be able to have easy access to information to trace networks of influence and empirically judge the effectiveness of environmental policies in Ann Arbor.

What unmet need does your product meet? 

           Although students at the University of Michigan make up a sizable portion of the Ann Arbor community they aren’t recognized as valid constituents by the local government because they’re a relatively transient population. More importantly there is a perception that these students don’t care about local governance. However, many students participate in environmental activism in Ann Arbor. At a recent Environmental Commission meeting members noted that they wanted to collaborate on the student driven “divest from fossil fuels and invest in sustainable energy” initiative on campus. However, there is lack of substantial coverage of local government as Annarbor.com often skims the surface and doesn’t often make connections or provide critical analysis.  Our app seeks to fill that gap and to transform students into constituents that local government officials should consider.

        Students cannot make informed choices without information.  This is applicable not just in voting, but also concerning local environmental issues. For example, according to the EPA, Ann Arbor has a dismal record in terms of air and water quality compared to the rest of Michigan. Not only will our app facilitate partnerships between local government and the Umich community, but it will also help shed light on environmental issues that many students don’t realize we have because of the widespread perception that Ann Arbor is an immensely green city.  Students have the resources and the drive to make substantial changes that will benefit the Ann Arbor community. As Michigan tries to stopper its “brain drain,” our app can help keep students in Michigan post graduation by making them active and informed participants in the Ann Arbor community.

Interviews:

Natalie Yieh, a native of New York City and a UM senior said, “I think I don’t pay attention to local issues because I just don’t have time… It’s too difficult to follow local, state, national and international news.”

     This sentiment was largely echoed by other students interviewed. For example, Karin Bashir, a native of Jackson and student in Ann Arbor explained; “honestly speaking, I really don’t know about environmental initiatives in Ann Arbor. There is such a bubble around campus that outside of State St. and South U., I really don’t know what’s going on in the city.”  

Sam Tuck, a 24 year-old graduate student at UM, stated that local politics often seem inaccessible; “I’ve lived in Ann Arbor my whole life, but I still feel very removed from local politics…I think people kind of forget that these local decisions can have a huge impact on our everyday life.”

Tyrone Stephens, a UM senior studying Environmental Policy, corroborated this last statement, expressing his belief that “Oftentimes, people don’t realize that local politics have a huge effect on how we live our everyday lives and that, unlike national politicians, local politicians are actually pretty accessible.” He continued, “I think environmental issues are even more relevant at the local level, because that is where things get done, that is where the change actually happens.”

Overall, students expressed a sense of separation from local politics, admitting that they knew more about national initiatives and politicians than those in their local community.

How big is the potential market for your idea? 

       Our product is specifically geared towards college students in the Ann Arbor area.  This is a significant market due to the high density of colleges including the University of Michigan, Washtenaw Community College, Concordia, and Eastern Michigan University. The University of Michigan alone boasts over 43,000 total students (University of Michigan Total Enrollment Overview, Office of the Registrar).  This represents a diverse and intelligent population that is often not familiar with the local issues and government. Students often do not have the time to invest in finding the background information to become a critical consumer of local news.  Although most student’s time as an Ann Arbor resident is transient, this does not mean that all students are uninterested in local issues.

How is your idea innovative — new or different from something already existing?  

     Our project was inspired by initiatives of the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit organization that uses the power of the Internet to provide tools for better information access and government transparency. This includes tools to track organizations paying for ads, political financial contributions, and uncover level of influence politics. Sunlight Foundation would thus be our closest competitor.

       However, our focus on local issues, politics, and audiences makes our product unique from tools that have already been developed.  In fact, this type of tool is even more relevant at local levels: there are many watchdogs covering the actions of Congress, but corruption on the local level may go largely unnoticed. While accessible and relevant information is powerful on all scales of government and issues, each news consumer should not be expected to be invested in extensive investigation to get facts on important issues in their own community.

     In addition, our project differs from competitors in that it provides a forum where interested news consumers can both explore background information on initiatives and local policy makers juxtaposed next to data comparing how one’s local community is progressing on environmental issues in relation to other communities. Thus, the application will allow citizens to identify points of contention and issues that need more attention in their local community.

 

How will your idea be financially sustainable? 

     Our goal for improving information accessibility to allow citizens to be critical consumers of news is only realistic if the product itself is financially sustainable. The $50,000 of grant money will be used to create the database as well as develop the software and design the interface.  After the start-up costs are fielded, the product would not take extensive resources to run and could most likely be managed by a single person.

     The sustainability will stem from requests for statistical services from the database.  Any article queries from citizens and companies will be free but there will be a small charge for extensive statistical analysis of variables requested.  This would still be a service for the requester because the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests would not have to be filed. This would save time and effort as well as bringing enough revenue to sustain the project.

 

Why are you and your team the right people to develop this project?  

     Our team is adequately equipped to develop this product due to the diversity of our background.  We have unique talents from different disciplines and grew up in different communities to bring a range of perspectives to tackle difficult issues.  Our team has representation from political science, , and international relations, biological science as well as research, clinical, and cultural experience.

       Additionally, we are all graduating seniors which allows us the flexibility to take on the project after our coursework obligations conclude in May.  Our four years at the University of Michigan and experiences in this class have allowed us a better grasp of the local politics and issues as well as an appreciation for the culture of the University.  

 

Interviewee contact information

1. Natalie Yieh

Age: 21

Gender: Female

Occupation: Student, Consultant, IBM

Town of Residence: Ann Arbor, New York City

Contact information: natalieyieh@gmail.com

2. Tyrone Stephens

Age: 23

Gender: Male

Occupation: Student, Environmental NGO

Town of Residence: Ann Arbor, Washington DC

Contact information: tycs22@gmail.com

3. Karin Bashir

Age: 21

Gender: Female

Occupation: Student, lawyer

Town of Residence: Jackson, Ann Arbor, MI

Contact information: bashirka@umich.edu

4. Sam Tuck

Age: 24

Gender: Male

Occupation: Student, Lab researcher

Town of Residence: Ann Arbor, Michigan

Contact information: samtuck@umich.edu

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4 Responses to “Knight News Challenge: Local Government Transparency and Connecting the Dots”

  1. I really love the idea to connect people more to local governance. I’ve lived here three years now and only this last semester have I known anything at all about the government that my rent helps pay for. I also really like the specifics in terms of providing a tool to uncover corruption, especially in light of what we learned at the garbage plant. That being said there are two points within the funding of the project that seem like they might be an issue. I’m not sure you can rely on people funding the project through statistical analysis, partially because I’m not sure people will do that, perhaps a paywall model if you set up a website. The second is that you will have a fixed cost in a server back end, if they are querying you directly. It might be better to have them pay to download the database themselves, and have them locally perform any computation, saving you the need for a central server. That way you can have three types of viewers. transients who pay through advertising, members who get through the paywall and disable ads, and contributers who do analysis (which is c for you because you have access to their work). Seems like a good tool, good luck when we meet of the field of pitch-based battle.

  2. jacquelinegamache Reply April 5, 2013 at 3:20 am

    I am also incredibly excited about this project. The initial scope to engage students is important and teach students how to be active in a community where they choose to live after leaving Ann Arbor. But, I feel there is a much broader audience that would benefit from this application. I have always wanted someone to poll voters as they exit the polls and not just ask what party they voted for, but if they knew the platform of the candidate their chosen candidate. Local governments are an after thought to the public and many operate with the ability to serve their own interests. I also question the revenue method and wonder if it would actually be possible to have tax dollars fund the site after it has been created. If citizens will be benefiting from this information, they should contribute to fund it.

  3. I like this idea a lot. It sounds like a valuable service. A few points to consider as you continue to think about this:
    1. I agree with Jackie that this idea has appeal beyond a college audience. It’s often the case that people don’t become engaged with local news until they own a home and have kids in local schools. That’s usually when local government becomes very relevant to you. So engaging college students with local news is an ambitious goal. It might be easier to engage local homeowners or parents with local government — and I believe they would also be interested in the kind of information you propose to gather about local officials.
    2. I think you may be underestimating the amount of work involved in collecting and maintaining the info, keeping it up-to-date.
    3. I agree with Adam that the funding you propose may not be enough to keep this idea going.
    4. In terms of near competitors, you might want to look at muckety.com, a site that tries to map the networks of the wealthy and influential. I know one of muckety’s founders, Laurie Bennett. If you’d like to talk with her about your idea, I think she might give you some really valuable insights since she has been doing something similar for years. Just email her and mention my name (remind her that we worked together at the Detroit Free Press).
    Overall, nice job on developing this idea.

  4. I like the setiment behind is idea, and I genuinely would love to see better tools developed to connect citizens, data, services and government. That said, I have a difficult time envisioning your “product” and perhaps more importantly answering the question: how do you get student “citizens” (who are primarily transitory) to care enough to engage with something like this, and then keep coming back, and even contributing? If you can answer those questions, on top of those already raised by Professor Askari, then you’re on to something IMHO. I realize I may be missing visuals on this blog format, but that would help answer my question. Also, give your concept a name, and help me understand that it’s like x, but for y, in the pit h.

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