Documenters.org was launched by City Bureau in January 2019 as a service journalism management system for our network of Documenters in Chicago and Detroit. Documenters are citizens and civic actors; creators and collaborators; representing a broad base of intergenerational, diverse communities. As of the filing of this submission ~750 people have created Documenters.org accounts. City Bureau recruits, trains and pays this group of highly engaged citizens to participate in the news-gathering process and contribute to a communal pool of knowledge. Those contributions center around local public governance meetings and include producing meeting notes, photos and video; live-tweets and annotations of local government documents.
We began with a core problem: Local government bodies hold thousands of public meetings every day—but the vast majority receive no media coverage and produce minimal records. Our solution is to train & pay everyday people to attend these meetings and publish the results in collaboration with local journalists.
In addition to this new approach to community centered journalism, Documenters.org provides a new public service by scraping, standardizing and sharing information on 120 governmental agencies in Chicago and 29 in Detroit; in the process, it centralizes public meeting locations, dates and times at the local, county and state level for the first time, including official records like meeting minutes, agendas, transcripts and other documents published by local government agencies. To date, over 10,000 documents have been centralized and made public in one location via Documenters.org. To create and maintain this technological process, City Bureau convened over 40 local volunteer coders of the course of a year to build 93 web scrapers while sharing their skills and learning new ones. At the end of that process one of our volunteer coders was hired full time to serve as City Bureau’s full-time web developer. Though it began in Chicago, our open-source “City Scrapers” project has been replicated in Detroit and Pittsburgh—and, since producing a webinar on our code in February 2019, City Bureau has received interest from over two dozen cities in the U.S., Europe and South America interested in replicating our code and our Documenters program.
In March 2019, City Bureau improved upon its Documenters training system by adding a series of quizzes and badges to Documenters.org to better prepare Documenters for the work of holding local government accountable in collaboration with local journalists. Documenters content serves as leads and contextual information for local news stories, analysis and explanatory pieces, creating a new system for informing, engaging and equipping local communities in the production of local information. We know there is interest in our work—an average of 4.2 people join the Documenters network every day. Similarly, we have received interest from news organizations, community organizers, civic tech organizations and local governments interested in learning from our processes and partnering with our organization to distribute Documenters.org content.
In the coming months City Bureau will embark on a plan to expand the Documenters program to new cities beyond Chicago, based on outreach from individuals, organizations and local foundations.