[This page is a compilation of the Citizen Journo Tips that have appeared in The Square Beacon’s Monday-Wednesday-Friday morning email. It is updated incrementally.]
Citizen Journo Tip #1: Search Better. To find something on a specific website, here’s the fastest way I know to search: Use Google, but make Google look only at that website. Here’s how to do that, using the city of Bloomington’s website as an example. Let’s say you want a list of farmers market vendors. Type this into Google:
site:bloomington.in.gov farmers market vendors
Google delivers results for that search with the farmers market directory as the first entry. When I used the city website’s own search feature on the same three key words, I could not find the vendor directory among the first five pages of results. The city’s website search function is not bad. It’s just that Google is way better. When I’m looking for old articles on the Square Beacon’s website, I don’t use the built-in website search. I just use Google, but I type in as the first item: site:bsquarebeacon.com
Citizen Journo Tip #2: Link precisely to .pdf files. Have you ever emailed someone a link to a 200-page .pdf file? You might have included a note like: “The part you need starts on page 116.” That’s a scroll-fest that nobody likes. But government meeting information packets are often hundreds of pages long. Last Wednesday’s Bloomington city council meeting information packet weighed in at 513 pages. Here’s a link that goes straight to page 116 of that packet and does not require any scrolling: Link to page 116 of May 19 meeting information packet. How can you make a link like that? Just add #page=116 to the end of the URL for the .pdf. So the modified link looks like this:
(The part in bold is the basic link to the .pdf file—even though it does not end with .pdf) If a Square Beacon article includes a link to a .pdf file and there’s only part of the file that is relevant, I try to make it a precise link to the exact spot in the .pdf.
Citizen Journo Tip #3: Turn your audio into text. I have received a couple of questions about auto-transcription of public meetings. Currently, the Bloomington city council uses a Zoom interface that generates an auto-transcript. You can save that transcript (just like you can save chat windows)—if you can find the little clickable bit that saves it as a text file to your hard drive. That gives you a time-stamped text file of speaking turns. But the speakers are not labeled. The auto-transcript is also not 100-percent accurate. Sometimes it can be quite bad. Because it’s separated from the audio, it’s not as great a tool as it could be.
What do I use? Otter.ai—the engine that does Zoom auto-transcription. I record the meeting audio directly to an .m4a file on my hard drive. I upload the file to otter.ai, where I pay $10 a month for 5,000 minutes a month of auto-transcription. The good thing about otter.ai is that you can correct the text to match the audio. You can assign speakers their names, and otter.ai figures out who is who, for subsequent speaking turns. And otter.ai recognizes the same speakers for subsequent recordings. You can search for text across several recordings, not just the current recording. You can share the results with others! Here’s an example of what it looks like: Hamilton’s remarks last Thursday about The Waldron.
I need to put more thought into the question of archiving. I think it would make for a great community organizing project for a group to start working in collaboration with the city clerk to create a publicly accessible, perfectly accurate, speaker-identified transcription (tied to audio) for all future city council meetings.
Citizen Journo Tip #4: Extract pages from pdfs. This is a followup to an earlier tip about linking to a precise spot in a .pdf file by adding #page=N to the URL of the file. Linking to an exact spot in a 500-page .pdf is one way to be kind to others. But kinder still would be extracting just the few pages of interest, out of those hundreds of pages.
You don’t need fancy Adobe software to do this. Pull up the .pdf file in your web browser, and pretend you’re going to print it. (You might already know how to print just a few pages from a long document.) When you go to “print” you should get an interface that looks something like this screenshot. Choose “save .pdf” as the destination. And choose just the page range you want. When you “print,” the result is a .pdf file containing just the pages you wanted.
Citizen Journo Tip #5: Feed yourself calendars. Have you ever wondered how to keep track of city and county government events all at the same time? I use calendar “feeds” from government sources to pile all those events into my own personal calendar. Recently I was able to settle on a clean way to present more than one feed in one place, which you can see here: B THERE OR B SQUARE The three feeds merged into that one display are listed out under the calendar.
Bloomington (government source): https://calendar.google.com/calendar/ical/bloomington.in.gov_35a6qiaiperdn7b1r6v2ksjlig%40group.calendar.google.com/public/basic.ics
Monroe County (government source): https://www.co.monroe.in.us/egov/apps/events/calendar.egov?view=ical
Misc Civic Events (Square Beacon private source): https://firstname.lastname@example.org/public/basic.ics
If you want to add events from one of those three feeds to your own calendar, use those URLs. Your personal digital calendar will almost certainly have a way for you to add that URL. In Google Calendar, after you click on the “+” next to “Other calendars” you get a menu that looks something like this screenshot: Add Calendar screenshot. Choose “From URL” and follow your nose.
Once you have added the URL, your own personal calendar will update automatically, to echo exactly what those calendars say. Let’s say an event is cancelled and government staff edit the event title to start with “Cancelled: ….” That will show up in your personal calendar. If the government staff adds a link to the meeting packet information, as a part of the event description, you’ll have the meeting packet link right there in your own personal calendar.
The URL for the city events is a bit of a fire hose of events. If you want to add just a couple of the boards and commissions you care about, here’s a list of each individual calendar URL for many of them: Google Sheet with list of calendar URLs
Now let’s say you see a calendar online and you want to add it to your own. Based on CJT #5, you can at least ask the owner of the calendar this question: What’s the URL for the calendar feed? In a lot of cases, the owner might not know. In a future CJT, I’ll try to sketch out one or two ways to figure it out.
If you maintain a calendar that has a feed, tell me what it is and I will be able to add the event to the B Square display.
Citizen Journo Tip #6: Look up and cite local law. What does Bloomington city code say about how tall your grass can be? Is it 4 inches or 8 inches? An easy place to check is the third-party site that Bloomington uses to host its city code: Municode. The internal search for Municode is not bad. Search on “excessive growth” or “inches” and Municode delivers the among the search results, the section of Bloomington’s city code that covers grass height.
The interface also gives you a “chain” icon next to each section in city code, which will give you a URL that goes straight to that section of the code. You can bookmark that link or copy it and share it with someone else, like this: The answer is 8 inches.
Citizen Journo Tip #7: Fiddle with state statue URLs. If you encounter some citation of state statute in a meeting information packet somewhere, how do you look it up for yourself? For example, here’s a citation for the state law on compliance with terms of tax abatement: IC 6-1.1-12.1-5.9.
If you start at the general page on Indiana Code, it’s possible eventually to navigate your way to that citation. But it’s pretty tedious. Here’s a way to get there a little faster. Take a look at the URL for the general page:
Instead of “001” swap in “6” for the title we’re looking up, but padded with zeros: “006” And at the end, add a pound sign followed by the numerical citation: “#6-1.1-12.1-5.9”
The result, with the edited parts displayed in bold, looks like this:
That link goes right to the statutory citation! You can also fiddle with the year number “2020.”
If you change it to 2019, or some previous year, you can see what the same section of state code looked like in 2019. If someone sends you a link to state code, it’s a good idea to check that it’s the most recent year.
Citizen Journo Tip #8: Find old aerial photos of Bloomington. If you want to know what Bloomington looked like from the air starting around 1949, here’s the general sketch of one approach.
First you’ll need to figure out the index numbers of the files you want. You can do that here: Indiana University Spatial Data Portal. To download the files, you’ll need to register for the Multi-File Download Tool. From the Multi-file download tool, you select “BY DATASET” from the “SEARCH BY” dropdown menu. Then pick “Show Files Link” for the “1945-1979 City of Bloomington aerial photos.”
Check the boxes of the files you want, and submit for download. You’ll be emailed a link. Here’s more detail: Step-by-step illustrated with screenshots.
Citizen Journo Tip #9: Look up old resolutions. For a story about the county’s declaration of Juneteenth as an official employee holiday, I included a .pdf file with the last 10 years worth of holiday calendar resolutions by the county’s board of commissioners.
Where did I find those resolutions? I started here: resolution archive. That gives you an archive for Monroe County commissioners resolutions so far this year. At the bottom of the page there’s an interface for picking other years. But based on a previous CJT, you might know you can just manually edit that URL for the year you want.
What about resolutions by the Bloomington city council? Here’s where to start: Bloomington city council resolutions archive. That can be a little tedious to browse through. But using an earlier CJT, you can confine a Google search just to the right directory of the website. Say you want to search the city council resolutions archive for the keyword “traffic” Here’s what you would type into the Google search bar.
Citizen Journo Tip #10: Cite standard sources for weather and water facts. How hot was it, how much rain fell, and how hard was the wind blowing?
If I need to retrieve information about the last day or two, I typically try to use National Weather Service numbers: NWS most recent 3 days (by hour) for Monroe County airport. For longer periods of time, dating back to 1895 for some stations, try this: NOAA Regional Climate Centers datasets. The first step for the NOAA interface is to pick the kind of data you want—only then can you select the station using the search tool. Try picking “Daily Data Listing” to get an idea of what kind of options are available.
For historical water levels at Lake Monroe (6-hour increments) back to 1983, try this: US Army Corps of Engineers Lake Monroe Annual reports. For 5-minute increments for a more recent time period, try this: US Geological Survey gauge
Citizen Journo Tip #11. Spell names right. How is that person’s name spelled? Sure, you can Google it with your best guess for the spelling, plus some other information to narrow things down. And if the person has an internet presence you might be able to find confirmation that your guess is right, or even a suggestion from Google for the correct spelling. And you can exercise your judgment about the credibility of the spelling you find.
But what if an internet search turns up nothing? Or what if it does not turn up anything definitive? One pretty reliable source for spelling of names is Monroe County’s online property records. Here’s the link: https://monroein.elevatemaps.io/Granted, that’s limited to property owners in Monroe County. But if someone owns property in Monroe County, that’s a pretty good way to confirm the spelling of their name.