The inside track on how Aldertrack works

Published on Oct 24, 2015 by Steven Vance

Mike Fourcher and Claudia Morell talk about Aldertrack at ChiHackNight

Crappy iPhone shot of Mike Fourcher (left) and Claudia Morell (right) talking about the information that Aldertrack collects on Chicago City Council, boards, commissions, and electeds.

Mike Fourcher, founder of Aldertrack, and perpetual “news startup antagonist” (okay, I don’t remember the actual adjective he used), joined his colleague Claudia Morell, a reporter, and us at ChiHackNight on Tuesday night to explain how Aldertrack works.

ChiHackNight heard from Aldertrack’s former staffer Jimm Dispensa earlier in the year about the tools and processes they use to publish, but it’s hard to call tonight’s meeting a followup from the meeting with Dispensa, because they were focused on entirely different parts of the operation.

Tonight was more about the politics that Aldertrack “interferes” with.

As with most of my posts derived from my notes on the ChiHackNight collaborative agenda document these are paraphrased sentences, not quotations.

Presentation title: “Not really open data”

There are ~70 different boards and commissions in the City of Chicago, but information about each is sparse. Most don’t have their own website, but the bigger ones do.

In our quarterly report product – the first was published in August – we display a picture, a name, background on their day job, an email, and a phone number. It was hard to find this kind of information. If their appointment requires City Council approval then it can be a little easier to find the resolution that appointed them.

Issues in hunting down information

  • Sometimes information didn’t match.
  • Sometimes the source documents is missing data, like the appointment or expiration date.
  • The mayor’s fashion council, we weren’t sure if they met, what their purpose was.
  • Eventually we found pension board compensation amounts in state law.

Fourcher: City agency staff have basically been trained that they should never answer any questions from the press. The rule is to refer press to the mayor’s press office, so that they can make it hard for the press to get information. There’s a lot of information that’s obscure, whether purposely or not.

We published the Quarterly Report as a PDF but eventually we want to put it online so that you can click on someone’s name and see what other boards they serve on.

The content we find, and put in our Quarterly Report and Clout.wiki, is something we refer to in our reporting.

[I didn’t take any notes about the Clout.wiki, but there’s a lot of information in the questions and answers below.]

Q&A

Alex Soble: Does the city council do more than we think they do?

Claudia: There’s this perception that aldermen are a rubber stamp, or just there to approve the mayor’s agenda. I think that’s part of the problem.

Because people think that the news media is less likely to cover the things that are covered in the “big” committees (like finance). The education committee doesn’t seem to matter to a wider audience.

We put the TIF expenditures data in our newsletter, and I don’t think that’s something you found in the Tribune.

I also come from the NYC city council, where it operates differently. There’s less conflict in Chicago, especially when it comes to the budget [Claudia described how the city council ripped Bloomberg’s proposed budget to shreds and inserted their own pieces.]. There’s no speaker here that decides what bills get voted on, while Chicago’s mayor presides over the meeting.

Mike: Chicago isn’t a true representative democracy, but it’s less of a terrible thing than people think it is.

Eric Sherman: Why isn’t the wiki open?

Mike: It’s our site, and we don’t want to take the risk that people write dumb things. We close it off to everyone. We would love to hear from someone who has information, and we would check it, and then post it. We want to run it through the journalistic process we adhere to.
Claudia: We don’t have enough staff to moderate the wiki.
Mike: I don’t think even one full-time person could do it.

Forest Gregg: Many of the application processes are hard to figure out in Chicago. I love the documenting you’ve been doing of all the different commissions. What have you heard from users if they would like to hear things more on how things work? Lucas Museum…a number of steps that have to happen, a number of bodies that have to sign off on it. For developers, there’s a cottage industry around permit expeditors, but there’s the same problem of knowing how to step through other development processes.

Claudia: Land use boards…Zoning Board of Appeals that’s a 4-member panel that decides whether or not you can get a special use permit (to build a set back garage, or something).
Mike: We initially had this idea that we would have a regular city council product, and a separate zoning product. What we learned is that people who have an interest in land use, have a passing interest. Once the thing you’re interested in is “over”, like a proposed project that gets approved, then you’re not interested anymore.
The people that fall into the category of perpetual interest in land use, they all know each other. We decided to roll that into the main subscription. We have thought of doing trainings on how zoning works, here’s how you build a building in Chicago.
Forest: I think you’re in a good position to…make some flow charts. That information is shockingly hard to find right now, unless you have a professional interest in that area.

Jerry Mandujano: You started with campaigns [I missed the rest of the question] Is there something else that people should know?

Claudia: Property taxes, most other press focuses on how the changes would affect you on a personal level. What we do, we tend to be focused on the nitty gritty, the language of the ordinance, what conversations are going on around City Hall.
Mike: The demands of most of the news organizations is very different, and we have a blank slate. Every time someone zigs, let’s zag, and see what happens. If you read just one day of our product, you’re going to react, “Omg, what is this stuff? There’s so much detail.” If you read us over time then you’re going to get a good picture.
Fran Spielman, that woman is a freaking machine at the Sun-Times, she writes so much, and I mean this in the most positive way. She went on vacation for two weeks, and on the day she came back she published three articles. She has her head above water and she’s easily doing backstrokes.

[Someone commented that there used to be the City News Bureau which did a lot of what Aldertrack is doing.]

Steven Vance: Alderman show their true selves on social media. Many alderman have few followers and I think you’re spreading their thoughts further than they have been themselves. (I was referring to a new section on the free Aldertrack newsletter where they were posting links to weird or interesting tweets.)

Mike: And we’ve been getting some ire for that! There’s a lot of information out there, and we scoop it up, sift through it, and that’s shoe leather reporting. There’s a lot of sitting on the phone and calling people.

This was originally posted on Steven Can Plan on Oct 20, 2015.


About the author


Steven Vance is a web developer and transportation planner who writes for Streetsblog Chicago.