Automate Your City Data with Python

Oct 16 10:40 AM EDT :calendar: to 11:05 am

About This Talk

It is very hard for the average resident of a U.S. or Canadian city to know what’s going on with their civic government. It’s even harder for them to get any sort of historical context on why things are the way they are. Let’s take my hometown, the City of Alameda. Six months ago if you wanted to know which city meetings had discussed rent control, your options were:

  • Have a friend who is a constant watcher of Alameda meetings / the #alamtg hashtag and could tell you
  • Go through every meeting minutes on the Alameda Legistar and hope you figured it out

This is pretty common across a lot of civic government. I don’t think municipalities are willfully trying to hide this information from residents, and I don’t think it’s ineptitude. I think most cities, even the large ones, are understaffed, and without a concerted push it’s hard to make “visibility of city documents” a priority.

What if we could have SQL-backed full text search of city meeting minutes? Well, thanks to Datasette, Python, AWS, and some Github actions, we can!

Here’s the process:

  1. Figure out where official city minutes are hosted
  2. Write a script to fetch and format those city minutes
  3. Upload all the fetched minutes to AWS S3
  4. Run s3-ocr across the corpus of minutes
  5. Download the ocr’d pages into a sqlite DB
  6. Deploy a datasette instance to with that sqlite DB.
  7. Post to twitter so people know about it.

In this talk, I will cover this whole process in detail, including how to automate it, so that you can apply this process to your city, county, state, school board, or any other civic government you’re interested in!


    Photo of Philip James

    Philip James (he/him)

    Philip James (aka phildini) has been using Python since a friend used a projector at a summer camp to teach him code basics, changing the entire course of his life from “moody theater kid” to “moody (but smiling) Pythonista”. Philip has used Python to help build the Internet at Eventbrite and Patreon, and now uses Python and Django every day as CTO at Burb.

    Philip lives in Alameda, in the East Bay Area of California, with his partner Nic, their daughter Alex, and Nic’s cat River.