Last fall, two county commissioners wanted to be Miami-Dade’s next mayor.
In six years together on the county commission, they were often on opposite sides of the issues.
To show how the two voted, not just what they said, the Miami Herald’s Douglas Hanks used analysis from a free local web app called CivicPro that tracks public meetings and legislation. He looked at issues including a new mega-mall, ride-sharing services, immigration and police oversight.
“With two commissioners running, their legislative records offer the most detailed fault lines between the rivals,” Hanks wrote.
CivicPro was created by a team of policy wonks who were frustrated with how difficult it is for regular people to navigate local government. And, they wondered, if this could work for citizens and civic groups, could it work for newsrooms, too?
How do you cover 63 municipalities?
The Miami Herald used to have someone responsible for every city in Miami-Dade County. It wasn’t one to one, said Rick Hirsch, the Herald’s managing editor.
“But there was a body on every town and there was somebody who went through every agenda. That doesn’t exist anymore.”
The Herald now has five people covering local government. Miami-Dade has 33 municipalities. Broward, which the Herald also covers, has 30.
The Herald had 435 people in the newsroom at its biggest. In 2016, it had 116. And it’s not just them.
From 2008 to 2019, newsrooms around the U.S. shrunk by 23%, Pew reports. Newspaper staffs evaporated even faster, at 51%. And that was before the pandemic, which has led to thousands of layoffs and the closure of more than 60 local newsrooms.
That means the Herald has had to reallocate resources and change its approach. One way to do that is looking for trends across the region, and “this is a tool that can help you do that,” Hirsch said of CivicPro.
CivicPro was co-founded by Matt Haber, a former city of Miami attorney, and Jorge Damian de la Paz, a former policy analyst who works on affordable housing issues.
Haber, who had to spend a lot of time in public meetings, saw all the barriers keeping people from taking part in those meetings. They’d get tripped up by the wrong timing, the wrong board, or the wrong jurisdiction. Sometimes, if a person got to the right meeting in the right place at the right time, it was too late in the process for their feedback to work.
The process is broken and time-consuming — you’d have to read through a full agenda twice a month or more to figure out what local government is doing, he said. Add in the city and county, that’s another 300 hours a year.
“I counted, so I know,” Haber said, “and I read pretty fast.”
A new window
Haber wanted to build something that would tell people about issues they care about — affordable housing, transit, the environment — and let them know when and where those meetings were happening.
And that led to CivicPro.
The web app, which got funding from the Knight Foundation, among others, currently follows 10 local governments across two Florida counties. (Disclosure: My work covering local news at Poynter is also funded by the Knight Foundation.)
“Technically what we’re doing is all of these various boards and committees are required by law to publish agendas before a meeting and minutes after online,” said William Byatt, CivicPro’s tech lead. Byatt is also the Miami-Dade Democratic Party’s state committeeman.
What’s kept a tool like this from taking off before, he said, is the law does not mandate a standard format for all that information. So CivicPro built a set of tools that takes all the different formats and unifies them into one searchable format.
“What we’re able to do is provide an unbiased, objective, data-oriented look into whatever these committees and boards are doing,” Byatt said.
That data can help seasoned reporters check their intuitions, he said, and help a new reporter get a quick understanding of recent trends.
So far, about 300 people have signed up for various alerts. And the Herald plans to use it again, Hirsch said. If an environmental reporter wants to find out what cities are spending money on or talking about sea rise mitigation, for instance, they can find it. What are cities doing in the same way? Different?
“This is a window into that that we didn’t have before.”
CivicPro plans to continue expanding to add more users and more cities, Haber said, and drive people to engage with the governance happening around them.
“There’s 500 local governments in Florida,” he said, “so we’ll be at this for a while.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story got the locality of the two Miami-Dade commissioners wrong. They are county commissioners. Also, the Herald has five reporters covering local government, not county government. Both have been corrected. We apologize for the errors.