How City Bureau Recruited Volunteer Coders to Collaboratively Build Engagement Tools

by Riley Stevenson


In 2016, Chicago-based civic journalism lab City Bureau started its Documenters program, which trains and pays community members to document public meetings and other civic events in the city. As the program grew, the City Bureau’s staff realized they needed a better way to keep track of public meetings. To accomplish this, they teamed up with ProPublica Illinois and a group of volunteer coders to build “scrapers,” programs that scour the web for public meeting listings and use the details of those listings to automatically populate an events calendar usable by journalists and citizens alike.


Project Goals: The project’s goal was to allow anyone in Chicago to access an up-to-date calendar of local government meetings—and to make it easier for City Bureau to connect Documenters with relevant assignments in their neighborhoods. When the Documenters project started, “There were a lot of logistics and the information was in one or two people’s heads,” says Harry Backlund, co-founder and Director of Operations at City Bureau. “The calendar came out of a bigger design question: What tools and frameworks can we create to operationalize that information?” The calendar is now in beta, and City Bureau staff are interested in seeing how volunteer coding projects can be replicated in other cities or used in future City Bureau projects.

Tools and Technology: Rather than building its own data management platform, City Bureau used existing tools as a starting point. For example, the public meetings calendar was built on the content management system platform Airtable, which the team had already used to manage and store data such as contact information.

Impact: Although the aggregator is still in development, it’s already making it easier for City Bureau staff to find and track individual public meetings. The project has also helped City Bureau test a model for collaborative design with volunteers. “If we can do this again in a different context and show that it’s a cool way to do a project, that would be a sign of success,” Backlund says. “We’re interested in its replicability.” According to Backlund, City Bureau is already in discussions with media organizations in Detroit who are interested in working together to build an aggregator for engagement projects.

Organization Background: City Bureau is a civic journalism lab founded in 2015 on the South Side of Chicago. The nonprofit organization brings journalists and community members together to collaborate on media projects and enhance civic engagement efforts. The organization’s three main programs are its Documenters project, a weekly series of free workshops called the Public Newsroom, and its civic reporting fellowships. On its website, City Bureau discloses donors who give $5,000+/year.

Project Resources: In order to complete the aggregator project, City Bureau editorial director Darryl Holliday invested roughly 10 hours/week for two and a half months, and ProPublica Illinois news applications developer David Eades also dedicated time to the project. Volunteer coders met every Tuesday from 4-8 p.m. for drop-in coding sessions and more than 30 developers also gathered for a day-long “design-a-thon” to help create a public facing website for the project. In addition to staff time, the team also spent $500 on food for coders and $30-a-month on a pro subscription to Airtable, and they anticipate additional costs after the tool’s public launch.

Here’s what worked

1. Keeping it fun

“We created a space where people wanted to be,” Backlund says. Coding sessions included tutorials given by experienced coders, food was provided, and people were grouped into teams. “There was a lot of motivation to be there.”

2. Keeping it lean

We used existing tools to do most of the heavy lifting…and found cost-effective ways to engage people,” Backlund says. Because coders volunteered their time, the only really necessary resources were food and space.

3. Keeping it real

The City Bureau team didn’t set out to create new tools. Instead, they identified a problem and sought solutions, which ultimately led them to the scraping tool. This strengthened the coders’ sense that they were fulfilling a real community need.

Here’s what could work better

1. Avoiding scheduling conflicts

Hosting sessions on Tuesdays nights worked well for City Bureau, but the timing did overlap with Chi Hack Night, a weekly civic tech gathering in Chicago, which might have caused conflicts for some prospective volunteers. Holliday’s advice is to “consider what other regular events conflict with a date and plan accordingly, either by changing the day, proceeding as planned or, ideally, making contact with the [other] organization.”

Here’s what else you should know

  • Speak the language: Although City Bureau doesn’t have a professional programmer on staff, several team members had a basic understanding of how code works and could communicate with programmers when troubleshooting problems.
  • Spend time on design: “We spent a lot of time learning about what was possible, and thinking about what we’re trying to solve,” Backlund says. “That made a big difference.” Because City Bureau and ProPublica Illinois spent a lot of time designing the aggregator project, they didn’t waste people’s time coding something that would later get thrown out.
  • Bring people in: To find coders, City Bureau staff reached out to programmers they’d worked with before (plus many they hadn’t) and posted a project announcement on the messaging platform Slack. Even though a skilled coder likely could have completed the project independently, City Bureau felt that inviting in a group of programmers was aligned with their organizational mission. “There’s an independent benefit to getting a lot of people involved. We feel better about working this kind of way,” Backlund says. “And now there’s an active discussion about troubleshooting different problems.”

Learn More

Connect with the City Bureau team at to learn more about this project.

Riley Stevenson is a multimedia journalism master’s student at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication.

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