Knight News Challenge Proposal

2010 Knight News Challenge Application
Project Title: DemocracyMap: Discover Your Democracy
Describe your project: 

DemocracyMap provides a simple, unified interface to discover and understand all the civic entities for a specific location. In the United States it can be very difficult to navigate or discover relevant civic information – particularly information associated with local government jurisdictions. This is true even on the most basic level. It’s challenging to know anything about what’s happening in your city council or community board because you don’t even know how to identify the city council or community board that represents you. DemocracyMap aims to solve this problem by connecting citizens and journalists with the civic institutions and government bodies that represent any given location.

DemocracyMap offers location-based search for jurisdictions and their associated officials, offices, and websites at every level including hyperlocal districts for city councils and neighborhood associations. DemocracyMap will also provide APIs and embeddable widgets that allow other publishers to deliver and contextualize location specific information in creative ways. The concept is simple: Enter an address and discover a multi-layered democracy.

You may be thinking, doesn’t this already exist?

Websites like touch on this concept, but not to the local extent of DemocracyMap. Many websites provide federal information such as  congressman and senators, but they often stop at state-level information and rarely do they provide geographic context. Other efforts like the New York Times District API are limited to a specific region.

To a certain degree DemocracyMap exists in the UK with the website OpenlyLocal and in Canada with websites like Yet the UK has centralized all government boundary data while an uncoordinated jumble of over 3,100+ counties, 35,000+ cities and towns, and countless hyperlocal districts makes this is a challenge in the United States.

There have been some attempts to create a project that gets as local as DemocracyMap (including Knight funded Everyblock/OpenBlock), but none have coordinated the collection of jurisdiction information in a broad and comprehensive way and none have developed a sustainable model to keep the information up to date. All previous attempts to create anything like DemocracyMap have been closed, centralized, stand-alone efforts that don’t provide an open process that can scale to meet the challenge.

The concept is simple, but the sheer size is great. To make it happen, DemocracyMap is a multifaceted effort. The project consists of:

  • Maps: A geographic interface that clearly conveys all government jurisdictions applicable to a location.
  • Core Data: Basic information on each jurisdiction including their officials, websites, and primary contact information will be aggregated from existing resources or crowd-sourced as needed.
  • Coordination: A sustainable process will be established to maintain the information in a reliable manner. We are devoted to sharing resources, building relationships, and developing open and pragmatic operations.

What is unique about DemocracyMap is that it’s based on an open-source web-based process that is aligned with the distributed nature of government bodies.


How will your project improve the delivery of news and information to geographic communities?:

By cataloging the core information resources associated with a given jurisdiction, DemocracyMap can automatically connect people with news and event feeds that are produced by civic institutions that are relevant to them. This might be information on legislation that the city council is discussing or it could be the next meeting for a neighborhood association. Yet what’s unique about DemocracyMap is that it delivers significant value even when civic institutions aren’t producing these kinds of feeds. By allowing you to discover the relevant authorities and communities for any location, DemocracyMap offers an indispensable research tool for investigative journalists and for the geographic and civic contextualization of other news.

DemocracyMap is also meant to act as infrastructure for other sites to use. While it will provide crucial information itself, it’s greatest value may be in how it serves as a platform that provides geographic and jurisdiction information to enrich local news and other information services like OpenBlock or civic services like Open311.

Making location-specific information about public entities available in an accurate, easy-to-use interface can make the machinery and bureaucracy of society easier to understand and thus improve awareness of and engagement in civic affairs. Local news sites, bloggers, and other forms of media can embed jurisdiction information in websites as widgets, maps, and other information visualizations. People can reference districts, agencies, governing bodies, or public officials directly by URL in online communication, thus enhancing the credibility and contextualization of location specific information.


What unmet need does your proposal answer?:

There is no universal interface for the most fundamental information about civic institutions for any location in the United States. Currently, in order to identify the civic institutions for a specific place, you must first find the appropriate search interface for the region. Washington State’s Secretary of State provides registered voters there with a comprehensive lookup for their whole state while residents in New York City would need to use the NYCityMap website. In either case, it’s difficult to know that these search interfaces exist in the first place and there is no way to integrate their data with other crucial information such as the details of associated public officials. DemocracyMap will unify this information and provide open interfaces that allow the information to be more easily used with other technologies.

While DemocracyMap will establish the necessary technology to deliver this information as it currently exists, it will just as importantly establish the technology, community, and processes to maintain this information in a sustainable way. While the U.S. Census does not maintain hyperlocal information, it does maintain very important jurisdictional and geographical information on the state, county, and municipal level. Unfortunately, this information becomes outdated very quickly, so DemocracyMap will provide an accurate and manageable structure to keep this information current.

By making democratic institutions more accessible, DemocracyMap will not only make it easier to find the information these institutions are producing, but by doing so, it will also make it easier for people to actively engage in the process of democracy itself.


How is your idea new?:

The goal of DemocracyMap is not a new idea, but the goal has not yet been achieved. Therefore the truly new idea we are proposing is the process for achieving this goal.

DemocracyMap is managed through open and distributed processes for both information collection and dissemination. Through an open source, networked approach, DemocracyMap will not introduce any one single point of failure, but will instead establish a well coordinated process and infrastructure that mirrors the distributed nature of government and the internet. Under the right conditions, this is possible and we are inspired by the successful processes employed by efforts like Wikipedia and OpenStreetMaps. However, DemocracyMap will not have the nebulous characteristics of a wiki. Given the specific jurisdiction focus of this effort and the fact that it aims to capture many things which are legally defined, DemocracyMap will establish mechanisms to easily validate the information it serves.

Creating a comprehensive database across all public agencies is ambitious, perhaps audacious, given the ever-changing structure of government, the current state of information publishing in public agencies, the turnover of public officials and staff, and non-standard election cycles. Mapping the entire scope of jurisdictions in the U.S. is a large, messy problem, but it’s one we want to solve. DemocracyMap serves to map the skeleton structure of our decentralized US government. Our open data set approach makes this fundamentally new.

DemocracyMap is innovative as it uses geospatial lookups, mapping, and crowd-sourcing in a project that seems like it should already exist. Seeing  government as a single interconnected entity and being able to intuitively and universally navigate across levels is something that is fundamentally new.

DemocracyMap is already at a point where the path to creation and team are well-defined, but the project needs adequate attention and resources to make it a reality.


What will you have changed by the end of the project?:

The first order effect of DemocracyMap is that journalists and regular citizens will know how to discover and connect with all the civic institutions that are relevant to them. Behind this, there will be a community and a process established to maintain the infrastructure that makes it all possible.

What’s harder to predict, but even more powerful is all of the things that DemocracyMap can enable by serving as a platform for other information. By delivering such a ubiquitous and accessible geographic interface, DemocracyMap can serve as not only a fundamental gateway to be informed by and involved with the communities surrounding you, but also as a birds-eye view to help bridge neighborhood programs, community groups, school districts, and other local information resources. As such, DemocracyMap will enable reporters to more easily discover and contextualize the information that matters most to local communities.

Furthermore, a massive open data set will be available for journalists, developers, and others to creatively use to provide similar look-ups focused on their community or to mash-up with other data.  For example, to integrate links to government jurisdiction home pages when the name of the government appears in a news report.

Looking back at DemocracyMap, people will be surprised that it hadn’t been invented earlier and wonder how democracies and local communities had functioned without it.

We hope that exposure to DemocracyMap can be analogous to how a glimpse of the earth from the moon provides a new perspective of life.  The ability to see civil society systematically, as an interconnected whole is an important evolution for citizens and forward thinking civic institutions.


Why are you the right person or team to complete this project?:

The DemocracyMap team is composed of members with technical, project management, community building, and grant management experience. Our collective background in open civic projects is noteworthy, with the right combination of technical expertise, project management, vision, and ambition. We each have background in the public and nonprofit sectors, effectively using open source technology, and building communities both online and off.

The fundamental challenge of DemocracyMap is one of coordination, but we are a team of leaders and community builders. We’ve been researching and developing this project for over a year and have received enthusiasm and support from nearly everyone in a position to help.

The DemocracyMap project has already been driven by interest and input from lead geospatial data and technology coordinators and other individuals (does not imply endorsement) within the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the US Census, the General Services Administration (, the USGS, the Small Business Administration, the FCC, the New York State Senate, Google, Microsoft, Mobile Commons, Sunlight Labs, OpenlyLocal, OpenGeo, as well many local governments, mailing lists, and meetups around the U.S.

Based on our position in the non-profit world and our experience with organizations who can help move this forward, we are in a uniquely ideal position to act as conveners.

The DemocracyMap team consists of:

Ryan Wold
Ryan is currently an IT Consultant at Cal Maritime Academy and has been a public servant for 9 years at local, county, and, state levels.  A self-taught technologist with a Master’s in Public Administration, he studied e-government, focusing on workflow, process management, and public/private partnerships.  Ryan is also the founder and Director of MoreQuality, a nonprofit designed to provide expertise to public agencies and nonprofits for free or reduced charge, for the purposes of aiding transparency, accountability, and communication efforts.

Phil Ashlock
As the Open Government Program Manager for OpenPlans, Phil helps to facilitate collaboration between cities and other government bodies on the development of open standards and best practices around open government initiatives. Phil currently leads the Open311 initiative, helping cities leverage web enabled 311 services in a more collaborative and interoperable way.  Phil is also working with other organizations to establish a new entity called Civic Commons which will help support the kind of coordination and convening embodied by efforts like Open311 and DemocracyMap. As part of OpenPlans, Phil also works with OpenGeo, the leading developers of open source online mapping software.

Steven Clift
The Executive Director of and an Ashoka Fellow, Steven Clift - – has extensive experience bridging the civic engagement and media world and served as the founder and coordinator of the State of Minnesota’s first government portal. As an international speaker he has spoken across nearly 30 countries. has 17+ years experience with the use of technology to provide democratic information and civic engagement.

Additional Round Two Questions for the Full Proposal
What tasks/benchmarks need to be accomplished to develop your project and by when will you complete them?

The DemocracyMap project has been a work in progress for nearly a year and significant technical work and coordination has already occurred.  So far, everything has been accomplished within spare time, but the project has been building towards dedicated resources with a more focused and cohesive roadmap. Since much of this project is a data collection task, it’s important to recognize that this effort is as much about technology development as it is about strategic outreach, coordination, and relationship building with the disparate people and organizations who manage data.

The initial technical development cycle will last about three months. After this first stage, the technical development cycle will repeat in additional iterations while data sourcing and management begins as a parallel process.

System Architecture & Data Management: The first 1-2 weeks will focus on coordinating a high level system architecture, data model, and data management process while consolidating development already conducted in these areas.

Initial Platform R&D: The following 1-2 weeks will include a review of open source geospatial platforms that can be leveraged for the project. Platforms to review include GeoServer/GeoNode, MySociety MaPit, and the Newsapps Boundary Service. This stage will also include a review and consolidation of any technology we have already developed. The review will be followed by a much more detailed roadmap for configuring and extending any available toolset to match the system architecture and data management processes identified earlier.

The next month will be focused on piecing together a fully operational platform which allows full queries and enables new data sources to be acquired using a streamlined process. The month will include initial development of the user interface design and implementation of the API.

Data Sourcing: The third month will be primarily focused on sourcing data and normalizing it to match the structure of the new DemocracyMap system and data model. Initial data sourcing will focus on the urban and rural areas surrounding the residence of each team member (SF, NYC, St Paul). Each region will leverage the local knowledge and reach of the team member while initiating additional outreach.

Perhaps most importantly, this month will begin a controlled test around the process for community sourced data acquisition and data maintenance to keep data current. To facilitate this, we will emulate (and possibly integrate) the process for community development and data management/delegation that Sunlight Labs has utilized for the OpenStates project.

Performance Testing: After an initial round of development, the technical infrastructure will be tested and reviewed to ensure scalability and performance as we prepare to open it up for broader use.

Outreach: As the technical develop cycle begins to iterate again, the fourth month will also begin a new focus on outreach around data sourcing including strategic partnerships and basic marketing techniques through social media.

Success & Sustainability: As the project continues over the following development cycles it will adjust its processes to ensure that it can scale, remain sustainable, and achieves the benchmarks and progress outlined below.


How will you measure progress

The development process for DemocracyMap will be agile and highly iterative so tracking progress will be an integral part of the project.  This effort has great potential, but the reality of sourcing detailed data from non-standard or non-existent sources poses a level of variability.

To effectively track progress, quantitative and qualitative means will be employed to measure both usage and data coverage. While DemocracyMap will establish sustainable data management in specific regions long before it has complete coverage, it should be leveraged whenever and wherever it has evolved enough to be useful. This same principle is employed by other distributed content management processes such as Wikipedia. In this sense, DemocracyMap will be measured both by how well it can be used at any given point in its development as well as by how comprehensive the data ultimately becomes.

Quantitative measures of progress: Ultimately, the best measure of success for DemocracyMap is the number of users leveraging the system and their amount of use (page views). Users include both web editors who are syndicating information from the API to enhance their own website (such as an online newspaper) as well as citizens who receive information directly from sources on a DemocracyMap webpage or indirectly through richer contextualization on other websites. In order to maintain the data in a sustainable way, the project also calls for better coordination from government bodies, so influencing them to open their data and even make use of the DemocracyMap tools and processes will be an important metric.

DemocracyMap can only be successful by first helping to make raw data available and providing it in a consistent and accessible form. As the project expands its outreach to integrate more data sources we will track the total numbers for each kind of data and indicate the overall completeness for any given point. This includes the number of jurisdictions captured as well as the number of individual positions, agencies, and government bodies. The ultimate goal is to aggregate information for all elected officials and boards in the United States.  A comprehensive count of all of these is elusive, but American Solutions cites more than 500,000 officials. lists more than 38,000 local jurisdictions and there are typically multiple councils, boards, commissions, or committees within each of those jurisdictions.

Qualitative measures of progress: The most exciting things about the DemocracyMap project are the unexpected uses and impact it may have. Considering how poor access to local government information is currently, DemocracyMap can make a significant impact on how people connect to their government.  There are unpredictable qualitative measures regarding the way it could be used in conjunction with news coverage, the way the public might interact with it directly, how other services extend it, or how it might influence governments to provide information in a more accessible manner. One important form of validation would be for DemocracyMap to act as the source for citations and overall provenance for important information in news coverage.


Do you see any risk in the development of your project?:

Accessibility: There is no complete repository of boundary files nor any one directory of public officials across the United States.  While state, county, and municipal boundaries are available, sourcing hyper local boundary information and data such as a city board will be difficult because the data is broadly distributed and because it’s sometimes not even made available in the first place. We are aware of these challenges and are actively developing methods to source the information in a reliable manner.

Scalability: Due to the sheer quantity and scope of data management, the technical infrastructure and project managment needed to accommodate the ultimate goal could become unweildy. For this very reason, we are building in the principles of small scale iterative development and distributed, well delegated data management into the foundation of the project.

Sustainability: Election information changes along with each election cycle, and this poses a challenge for DemocracyMap.  Given the natural entropy of information, we understand the need to develop sustainable, even automate-able processes to keep the data useful and current in perpetuity.

The only way we see DemocracyMap succeeding is by addressing these risks head on and taking every strategic step possible to mitigate them. By it’s very nature, this project is designed it be resilient to the challenges at hand.


How will people learn about what you are doing?:

People will come to know about DemocracyMap in several ways.  A mixture of communication efforts will build awareness and promote usage of the data.  As a part-time effort, there have been numerous online exchanges, group calls, a few meetups, and a couple breakout sessions held about DemocracyMap.  With a full-time focus, communication efforts would ramp up significantly to convene stakeholders to participate in the effort by providing data and/or using features of DemocracyMap.

From day one, this project is designed to have a viral nature in order to establish comprehensive coverage and usage across the United States. Some of the venues for dissemination include:

Social Media: Using blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and other digital tools, DemocracyMap will be shared in the digital ecosystem.  Additionally, pages and specific content from DemocracyMap will be sharable using social links.

Word of Mouth/ Email Lists: The DemocracyMap, LocalLabs, Sunlight, MySociety mailing lists have already fostered an ongoing conversation about DemocracyMap.  As the product becomes usable, additional opportunities for usage and feedback will drive additional dialogue, which in turn, can develop additional awareness.

Partners and Media: Developing relationships with government agencies, news organizations, nonprofits, and other businesses is essential to DemocracyMap’s success.  A coordination of efforts is a fundamental assumption of our effort.  In addition to the tools and data we create, we will find and cultivate community interested in related efforts: bringing information to the public.  Innovative news services like the Chicago Tribune and NY Times have featured representative lookup tools for specific geographic areas and have expressed informal interest in expanding their capabilities through an effort like DemocracyMap.

Usage: We will start with an initial presentation to demonstrate the intent capability of hyperlocal lookups.  As people use DemocracyMap based tools, they will come to learn about the lookup service that they found so useful   Through derivative or syndicated uses, people may also come to know about the source data and the functionality that DemocracyMap provides.

Speaking Engagements: Philip Ashlock is an experienced presenter, and DemocracyMap would be an engaging topic for several audiences.  Civic, geospatial, media, and open government events are suitable places to present DemocracyMap and related efforts.


Is this a one-time experiment or do you think it will continue after the grant?

DemocracyMap will be an ongoing effort long after the initial round of funding.  Pending a viable business (or funding) model, an ecosystem of users, developers, and supporters will continue maintenance and development efforts.  For profit or not, DemocracyMap is a fundamental tool that would attract maintainers if core support wavered.

Again, the important thing to consider is that DemocracyMap is about building a piece of technology as much as it is about enabling and enculturing a process for managing a set of crucial information. We want to leverage as many of the tools that are already out there while establishing a repeatable process and replicable infrastructure so that existing systems can be readily populated with a broad array of boundary data and maintained in a sustainable way. We can see this project potentially developing through a Carl Malamud style project management evolution where we build it with the intent that governments could ultimately help provide some sustainability or even the overall management, but that we bootstrap it until each of them can take it on. This is what happened with putting SEC filings online – it started with Carl doing it on his own until the process was transitioned to the government.
In addition to the Knight News Challenge, does your project rely on other revenue sources? (Choose all that apply):

Based on current funding arrangements, DemocracyMap would be financially supported solely by Knight.

The DemocracyMap project will however operate as an open source project from day one and we’ll welcome outside contributions and collaborators. The project may also be able to leverage other partnerships which can provide non-monetary resources such as free usage of web servers.

A primary goal of DemocracyMap is to be a free public service, so a number of models for financial sustainability will be investigated. If the data management and technical processes that DemocracyMap fulfills can be seen as crucial services by local governments and media entities, the service may be able to generate revenue through value added services. Given the important role we see DemocracyMap playing, we hope that many governments will help keep it running. Much like Wikipedia, crowd-funding may also play an important role for long term financial support.


  • Proof of concept screenshots
  • Logo
  • Endorsements (below)

While we didn’t manage to have our original proposal posted online to receive feedback, we did shop it around. Here are some of the notable comments we’ve received:


Christopher Groskopf – Chicago Tribune News Applications Developer:
“DemocracyMap is a very worthwhile project and its likely something we would leverage in the newsroom. I’m particularly excited that you’ve focused your application on the data collection task as much as the technical implementation.  In previous years I think many projects (including KNC recipients) have gone off the rails by focusing on tools for working with data that doesn’t exist

I would build something like this if I had the time to do so and if you build it, we will almost certainly build on top of it.  I can’t speak for the Chicago Tribune writ large, but as a news applications developer this project is quite an exciting project.”


Derek Willis – New York Times Newsroom Developer :
“I also really like the proposal. It serves a clear purpose and need, one that no central government agency is capable of fulfilling right now. We have map data for congressional districts, but below that level it comes very difficult even to gather all of the political boundaries for a single state, as my experience has borne out. This would be a great resource for developers and journalists looking to connect further with their communities.”

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