With $100 software and some time for editing, clerk makes full City Council transcripts a thing
The first innovation by city clerk Anthony Wilson was a small one: repeating each city councillor’s roll call vote as he hears them, to make certain every aye and nay is on the record.
Now he’s making a bigger change – massive, in the somewhat esoteric context of municipal clerking – that will put virtually every word a councillor utters on the record: compete transcripts of every meeting and subcommittee hearing. The software-enabled transcript technology costs the city only $100 a year but will help make debate and statements by councillors fully accessible and searchable, for the first time, by anyone with an Internet connection.
Wilson, hired away from Springfield by the council in July, spoke about the move Thursday in his office at City Hall. The conversation has been edited and condensed for publication.
How did this all come about?
I was already experimenting with how I was going to do my meeting minutes, which were a little different than the ones the council has been used to – so there was a little bit of friction there – and looking at software for transcription in October or November. Then councillor [Quinton] Zondervan submitted a policy order saying basically that all City Council meetings should be transcribed, and that gave me an extra impetus. I experimented with at least three or four different companies and ultimately did a trial membership with the one that we use now, called Otter.ai, which did a fairly good transcription and was very convenient when you want to go and make edits and corrections. From the time I identified it to the time we started to officially use it was probably about two weeks, to maybe the end of November, to the point I was comfortable with it and feel like I can do full council meetings.
So now we’re putting all [current] meetings on Otter and pushing transcripts out but also going back to all the meetings that I attended that I hadn’t yet gotten around to doing, back to about September of last year. That’s a little bit of a slower process.
The public gets searchable transcripts. What’s the benefit for your office?
I’m hoping ultimately that it’ll be quicker to turn around the minutes. I don’t want to put anybody out of business, but the thing about stenography is that it’s expensive, and it’s time-consuming for somebody. This technology is getting to the point where – you know, if we can replace the stenographer with the computer, that can work out very well. Otter’s transcription isn’t entirely accurate, but supposedly it’s learning.
For as short a time as you’ve been doing this with Otter, has it gotten perceptibly smarter and faster?
Oh yeah. I think one of the things that would give it hiccups in the beginning is acronyms, various types of jargon that are sort of city specific, like you know, FAR [for “floor-area ratio”]. Councillors’ names, things like that. In Cambridge, we misspell councillor with two “L”s – that’s been the tradition. But you know, it’s starting to pick that up. One of the great benefits of it more than even recording is that it knows who’s talking. It was quick to learn councillors’ names, and it gets better and better at identifying who’s speaking.
But someone still has to go through and edit a meeting’s worth of text.
Correct. That’s myself, or Paula Crane or someone else in the office. That’s done in-house, and the biggest pain point for us right now is that time commitment. Some of the ones I’ve done, it takes about double the time – like, if it’s a five-hour meeting, it’s 10 hours to edit. The idea is that you want it to be shorter than the time you take to do minutes, but right now I’d say it’s about even or comparable.
Otter is not the end-all, be-all. I’m always on the lookout for other companies, a better technology that can do it faster.
The Planning Board has a stenographer; the License Commission used to, but went to doing just audio and minutes. Have you had any conversations around the city about finding a standard? Do people know you’re using Otter? Are they interested?
The administration is aware; I did this all through the Information Technology department. I’ve not had any conversation with really any of the people you mention, though they may be aware.
Is this increasingly common practice for city clerks nationwide?
In Springfield, I had tried, but I just didn’t have the same flexibility. It’s not something I’m aware that any other clerks are doing, though Otter is actually very cheap, especially in municipal software terms.
I assume you’re involved with the Massachusetts Municipal Association and city clerk organizations. But there’s no sign of it?
Not that I’m aware of. This is not really something anybody’s talking about too much.
An example of full-transcript minutes can be found here, from a Jan. 22 meeting of the Health & Environment Committee. Eventually all council meetings and subcommittee hearings will have full transcripts on the city meeting calendar.
For hard of hearing folks, for all folks please advocate putting online at data.boston.gov the already public funded Stenographic Record of weekly Public Meetings of Boston City Council Wednesdays. The Steno is more complete than Minutes and more accurate than flawed video captions.