Behind the scenes: Interactive town meeting map

New Hampshire Public Radio has launched a smart experiment that gives the town meeting tradition a digital twist, creating an interactive Town Meeting Map for this week’s ballot initiatives. The map includes information that individual towns submitted and related discussions, and so far about 100 of the state’s 200 towns are participating.

Jon Greenberg, Executive Editor of NHPR, tells CyberJournalist.net…

For those of you who don’t know, on or about March 11th, voters in most NH towns take up incredibly detailed proposals that range from refurbishing the town’s fire department tanker for $95,000, to rebuilding the town clock for $29,500, to offering tax exemptions for alternative energy systems, to approving money for land conservation purchases, and so forth. Voter turnout has been a growing problem.

In late January, we decided to see if we could create a Google mash-up that would make it much more convenient for residents to at least see what was happening in their communities. With outreach help from the NH Local Government Center, every town was made aware of a simple web page they could fill out to send us their information. We paid for a little programming to convert that material into town-specific pages, complete with discussion sections, on our web site. Some well timed advice took us to a great free service, Mapbuilder.net, where we could import our data and generate a mash-up which we could then display on our site.

The information we’ve collected has given us a powerful overview of what the different towns are considering and we’ve already turned that into on air coverage. We see this is as the first year of an ongoing service, somewhat equivalent to a web page with snow closings. The most active comment site has been the one for the town of Exeter, a place that was the focus of our primary coverage this year. It’s not typical but it shows what you can make happen if you put in the effort to empower residents and train them how to write for the web.

Here are some details from Greenberg on how they did this:

We are a pilot station site for American Public Media’s Public Insight Journalism system. We used that system to generate the non-public web page where town managers would input data about their towns. That system also gave us a CSV export of that data.

We have a Drupal powered station web site and paid a programmer a few hundred dollar [Editorial comment: Redfin Solutions rules!] to modify our site so that we could import the CSV from the PIJ system. That import would do two main things: Create town-specific pages on our web site; Create the ability to export a new CSV of town data that was specifically designed for the final mash-up.

A friend at PRX pointed me to Mapbuilder.net. This is an awesome free service. [Editorial comment: Mapbuilder.net rules too!] I created the map, imported the CSV from our Drupal site and then our webmaster pasted the necessary code onto a page he created on our site. Everytime we update the data on the map at Mapbuilder.net, the changes show up on our site.

Could this be more elegant? Yes, of course. But not for the chickenscratch money we had available and the quick turnaround. We went from a first discussion to a working site within 15 days and nothing went wrong.

Have you created an interesting online project you’d like to share?

Send it to editor (at) cyberjournalist.net