The Code4Lib 2012 Lighting Talk I Failed to Give


At this week’s Code4Lib conference in Seattle, I was scheduled to give a lighting talk on some of the work I’ve been doing with the Occupy Wall Street Minutes Working Group. However, due to the previous evening’s festivities I was, um, indisposed and ended up not giving the talk. Since there seemed to be some interest in the topic, I thought I’d write something up and post it, especially since the indefatigable Corey Harper offered me his slot (thank you, Corey, for being a mensch and stepping back so I could step up).

First of all, a few disclaimers: everything I’m about to say is my own opinion, and should not be construed in any way as representative of the views of my employer. My involvement in OWS is as a private citizen, not as a representative of any institution.

Second, I’m not going to give you any of the history of OWS. There are a lot of articles and essays (with a lot of different perspectives) out there about this already, and I wasn’t involved with the movement in the very beginning, so don’t feel I have a personal perspective that needs to be shared. I’m also not going to talk politics, or get into any of the larger issues surrounding the movement. If you want to talk about that stuff, find me later and I’ll be happy to chat (preferably over a beer).

What I am going to do is talk about how I’ve been involved with the records and the recordkeeping processes of OWS; telling you a little about what we’ve been doing and then talking about what we’d like to be doing.

As I said, I’m not going to give you a history of OWS, but by way of introduction, a lot of what I’m going to say relies on an understanding of the movement’s structure. Basically OWS (at least in New York City) is made up of a bunch of autonomous groups, each of which come together around a particular issue, identity, or need. These groups are linked together through a tri-weekly decisionmaking meeting called the General Assembly, which uses a pretty specific and well defined consensus decisionmaking process. There is also an operational spokes council meeting that happens twice a week that uses the same consensus process, but allows for more focused discussions by limiting each group to having only one person at that meeting who can speak. Both sets of meetings are long; usually three to four hours, and both are usually in public spaces, often outside.

I’ve been involved with one of these groups, the Minutes Working Group, for a couple of months now. The group’s goal is to record the processes and decisions of the General Assembly and the Spokes Council, a goal which grows out of a couple needs that the group fulfills. First (and most important), it meets some operational needs of the movement by providing a record of decisions made. This has all kinds of ramifications for working groups, for example, financial disbursement relies on documentation provided by minutes as proof of agreement on a particular proposal, so if we don’t record that consensus was reached on a proposal that involves money (or record it incorrectly), that money will not be disbursed. Second, one of the movement’s core values of transparency is served by having a public record not only of decisions, but the processes by which those decisions were reached. Third, the minutes offer a way for people who cannot be present for every (or any) meeting to keep in touch with what’s happening. as well as provide an incentive to stay involved with the movement. Finally, these minutes will eventually serve as an invaluable part of the historical record about this movement. The news media has already relied heavily on minutes as a record of events, in some cases even quoting extensively from them.

The group originally started creating verbatim transcripts, but as the winter set in and the initial enthusiasm wore off, it became essentially an impossible task. We have now moved to a more summarized form of documenting process and decisions, but are still interested in creating transcripts of these meetings by crowdsourcing some of that work. As I said above, the work that we do serves a number of purposes, and some of them are better accomplished through a summary than a transcript or vice versa.

We’ve been posting these minutes on the New York City General Assembly’s website, which is built on Wordpress. I don’t know much about this website; another working group has been building it out. Over the course of time, we’ve been experimenting with a number of different ways of creating minutes, and have recently started using Etherpad Lite as a way of collaborating on transcriptions. We also recently started creating audio recordings of the meetings, which we’ve been uploading to the Internet Archive and then linking back to the Wordpress posts of the particular meeting’s minutes.

There are a few other ways that meetings get documented as well. There’s a small group of people that have been livetweeting the meetings, and some people livestreaming as well. Obviously those are both great for keeping people involved in real time, but are less permanent and in some ways less reliable/trustworthy than the minutes we’ve been creating.

That’s what we’ve been doing. It’s a pretty big commitment, especially since many of us are working fulltime jobs and already have pretty busy lives.

There are a lot of things we’d like to do, or do better. We’d like to find ways to link up all the different ways the meetings are documented (audio recordings, tweets, livestream, minutes and transcriptions). Right now we have a post with an embedded quicklinks table that’s really handy, but it has to be manually updated, which is somewhat of a hassle. We’d also like to continue to make the process of minutes taking as transparent as possible, by having more information about provenance of the documents; who typed what, what edits were made (and why), and the differences between versions of the documents. We’d also like to find ways to help other working groups document their meetings in a standardized way, by providing templates, workshops and other resources.

Most importantly, we’d like to work more efficiently, so we can continue to do the work we’ve set out to do. Thanks, and again, feel free to talk to me at any point, by any means, about any of this.