The Council Data Project was deployed to make Montana's state legislative session more transparent and accessible.

Even with the advancements in technology that have allowed ordinary people to stay up to date with national news, many citizens are still unaware of the changes that happen within their own community. The Council Data Project has been changing this with a creative and groundbreaking open source technology tool.

As an undergraduate student six years ago, Eva Maxfield Brown shared concerns about Seattle City Council decisions with her professor, Nick Weber. Eager for more information, Brown and Weber searched for recordings of City Council meetings, but they were often difficult to find. “We decided, let’s make city council meetings easier to follow”, Brown said. So they created The Council Data Project, which works by scraping videos from government websites, transcribing them, and making them searchable. This makes it possible for citizens to easily stay abreast of action in their city council.

Council Data Project now makes it possible for a person to enter a keyword into the search bar and be moved to any point in the meeting that talks about the keyword topic. Not only does this save time for the user, but the search tool allows for greater engagement between the government and its citizens. The software has proven so useful that it’s been adopted by nineteen cities across the country.

In Missoula, Montana; volunteers set up an instance of the Council Data Project to transcribe local city council meetings, as well as several congressional debates prior to the 2022 elections. These resources were deployed on the Open Montana website, a pilot program of DemocracyLab.

Building on this success, Open Montana volunteers decided to tackle the task of deploying an instance of CDP to transcribe meetings of the Montana State Legislature. This task differed in scale to other applications of CDP, because the Montana Legislature meets only every other year for four months, and in that brief time the legislature generated nearly 8,000 hours of video. This necessitated making changes to improve the efficiency of video ingestion to enhance performance and minimize costs.

The end result was the country’s first interface making it possible to search for a keyword across 8,000 hours of legislative proceedings. This functionality proved useful to citizens, journalists, activists, advocates, and businesses across Montana who had an interest in exercising their “Right to Know”, which is uniquely guaranteed by Montana’s state constitution.

Implementation of the project was sponsored by the Chambers of Commerce from Missoula, Helena, Big Sky, Kalispell, Great Falls, and by the state-wide Montana Chamber. Kim Latrielle, President/CEO of the Missoula Area Chamber of Commerce said “We take our Right to Know seriously, and this tool made it much easier for citizens and businesses to understand what’s happening in the legislature and to advocate for their interest.”

The success of this pilot project is a testament to the power of civic technology, open source software, and cross-sector collaboration. It is our hope that programs like these can make governments across the country more accessible, accountable, and efficient, resulting in better public policy and improved quality of life.