Arbor Update

Ann Arbor Area Community News

City boards and commissions service data as a spreadsheet

21. April 2009 • Matt Hampel
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The City of Ann Arbor posts the names and positions of people serving on various commissions on its Legistar site. It’s a pretty entertaining page to browse around. And Legistar has a fairly usable interface — but its export function is completely broken.

Brian Kerr and myself have scraped the information from its (technically) obfuscated format and put it in a generic spreadsheet system (also: Excel download) for your open-data consumption desires.

  1. Yes, I know, excitement city has arrived in the form of a spreadsheet. But now you can automate an email-the-mayor system to advocate for yourself as a candidate for positions expiring in the near future.

       —Matt Hampel    Apr. 21 '09 - 07:30AM    #
  2. I find the site very easy to use. All the information is easy to obtain. Why would anyone want or need an exported list? What is the point?

       —Diane    Apr. 21 '09 - 07:23PM    #
  3. Re: [2] The site does make a lot of questions easy to answer. For example, What does Carsten Hohnke do besides sit on city council? Clicking on his name gives you that.

    Others are not as easy to answer. For example, let’s say I want to know when the next opening is on any board or commission. Unless there’s a clever-er way that I’ve missed, what you have to do is open each board and commission, check for the oldest appointment, and make a note of it.

    Or say you want to explore the question about Carsten Hohnke more generally: Who are the people who sit on lots and lots of boards and commissions? The spreadsheet Matt and Brian have provided gives the answer to that question at a glance.

    Those are two questions that I’ve wished I had answers for over the last couple of months, so they’re not the product of some brainstorming exercise. That said, I doubt that those questions are very high-frequency for the average citizen. The counter-point to that is: Reasonable questions, whether they’re high-frequency or not, should be as easy as possible to answer. Sometimes user-interfaces make easy things even easier, but sacrifice ease in other areas, as I think is the case for Legistar.

    I wonder if Legistar has some feature, or perhaps can be tweaked, to allow auto-publication of something very close to Brian and Matt’s table.

       —HD    Apr. 22 '09 - 05:29PM    #
  4. Actually you can get that information from the website. If you click on the person’s name and then choose all from one of the pull down menus, it will list all previous and current commissions that the person sits on. One caveat is that the previous commission data only appears to be there for the council members. I am assuming that as time passes the data will reflect past appointments for all commission members.

    As for learning about which commissions have vacancies, people should want to be involved in a topic that interests them (at least somewhat), not in any open appointment that might be vacant.

    If somone wants to serve and get involved in local politics, they should look through the list of commissions, see what interests them or see where their skills are useful and then look to see if there is a vacancy. By just applying for any open position does not do the commissions any service.

       —Diane    Apr. 22 '09 - 06:18PM    #
  5. Diane, you’re right. The Legistar site is much easier to use than it was, and it answers nearly all questions immediately. This is a data-wonk application, and perhaps too specific and dorky for Arbor Update.

    Having a spreadsheet or comma separated values lets us use this data in a transferable way. For example, it’ll let some networks student build a visual graph of official relationships. We’ll be able to auto-store some of this information on ArborWiki, too.

    The City could also decide (for whatever reason) to stop posting appointment histories in an easily readable format. Of course, there will always be a permanent official record somewhere, but someone else storing the history adds just a little bit of redundancy.

    It’s a stepping stone, and nothing more [exciting] than that.

       —Matt Hampel    Apr. 22 '09 - 07:06PM    #
  6. “perhaps too specific and dorky for Arbor Update.”

    As long as I have any say in it: nothing is too dorky for Arbor Update.

       —Bruce Fields    Apr. 23 '09 - 12:48AM    #
  7. Diane,

    I think you’re assuming that the only reason a person might want to know when the next opening on a board or commission is coming up is so that they know when they would have the earliest chance to serve on a board.

    Here’s my interest: N weeks out from any appointment that needs to be made, I’d like to run a feature on The Chronicle explicating what that board/commission does, who’s on it, what the significant achievements are in the last M years, and the fact that there’s an opening that needs to be filled by appointment or re-appointment.

    As for getting the information about who sits on lots of boards, all I have to do with Matt and Brian’s table is scan visually for the repeated chunks. Clicking on everyone’s name is a bit tedious — but yes, it gets you the information.

       —HD    Apr. 23 '09 - 05:25AM    #
  8. Hint to HD – when you check out these committees, make sure they are still viable. For example, if you click on me it lists a Task Force on the urban county – long since phased out. Someone needs to update the information – and I don’t know how that can be done efficiently.

       —Leah Gunn    Apr. 23 '09 - 06:28AM    #
  9. This conversation shows how new ways of analyzing public data could produce really cool things, and how you can’t always see how things will evolve when you start playing with them.

    It also shows how short-sited the DDA decision to impede access to public parking data was.

       —Chuck Warpehoski    Apr. 23 '09 - 05:29PM    #
  10. Wow HD…I never thought I would ever hear you say that paper might sometimes be better (easier) than electronic. Does the same hold for reading newspapers in print vs on the web?

    Just teasing ya a little bit. :)

    I understand your point.

       —Diane    Apr. 23 '09 - 05:55PM    #
  11. I believe many of those names thereon are outdated.

    For instance it shows Joan Lowenstein still holding several posts when,correct me if I’m wrong, she left her assignments with the city last year when she did not seek re-election to her council seat.

    Overall I do like the information, though formatting could clearly be better.

       —Larry Fugle    Apr. 24 '09 - 04:29AM    #
  12. I’m pretty certain Joan is still on the DDA. She was never the member from Council; instead, she was a member from a downtown business.

    I don’t know if she’s still on the other committee. As a citizen, she can continue to serve. Former members of Council can be still quite active. See Jean Carlberg and Wendy Woods.

       —Sabra Briere    Apr. 25 '09 - 04:02AM    #
  13. It is good to see Joan is still working in city government.

    I miss all of the back and forth between speakers and her during Public Commentary during City Council meetings.

       —Junior    Apr. 25 '09 - 09:15PM    #
  14. I have found the spreadsheet helpful and “user- friendly”.

       —Junior    May. 30 '09 - 11:56PM    #