New website uses AI to make community board meetings more accessible

A screenshot of a Zoom community board meeting
Virtual meetings, like this October gathering of Brooklyn Community Board 6, became the norm during the pandemic.

A new website uses artificial intelligence to promote civic engagement by auto-generating informative weekly newsletters about New York’s community boards, hoping to make participation easier and more accessible to locals. 

Block Party allows New Yorkers to sign up for a once-a-week email that sends them important points and a full transcript of the civic meetings by processing the closed captioning from the community boards’ YouTube videos, and adding punctuation using machine learning algorithms. 

The site’s software then uses AI to pull oout the most important sentences, which appear in the newsletter as highlights, by identifying keywords — a process called “extractive summarization,” said one of the website’s founders. 

“Our goal is to make local policy accessible and bite-sized,” said Sarah Sachs, who launched the website with her former classmate in the fall. “The accessible part is getting everything together, and the bite-sized part is creating highlights.”

The website also provides links to each community board’s YouTube channel, where users can watch recordings of their recent meetings or tune in for livestreams.  

Only 25 of the city’s 59 boards are available on Block Party right now, since those boards are the only ones to upload their meetings to YouTube, but the founders say they hope the numbers will continue to grow as more civic panels look towards new ways to get neighbors involved. 

Sachs, a Manhattan resident, said she decided to start the project after learning about community boards last summer through BetaNYC, an organization that helps community boards use technology and open data to assess local issues and reach their constituents.  

“Seeing BetaNYC, I thought, ‘Wow, there are so many things happening, and I don’t know about any of it,” said Sachs, who works with language processing in financial technology. “And also, I was looking to do something useful with my time during the shutdown … This has just been a passion project.”

Sachs partnered up with her friend, Brandon Pachuca, who studied data science with her at NYU’s Center for Urban Science and Progress, and decided to create the newsletter in September. 

The initiative comes as community boards across the city have moved their meetings online amid the COVID-19 pandemic, causing a boost in attendance and participation. In Queens, the increase in civic participation has led to the largest number of community board membership applications in the borough’s history. 

The software could help community boards — which tend to operate independently with limited cooperation — communicate with each other about projects that affect both districts. 

“[It could work] especially to connect the dots — you’re starting a bike initiative here, but you need to get it across the bridge,” Sachs said.

Sachs and Pachuca are working continuously to make Block Party’s interface more user-friendly and hone its software so that it can pick out the most salient quotes from each meeting, she said. In the future, the team might make the transcript database searchable, so people can see what’s being discussed at community board meetings. 

“We were thinking, maybe we could make this into a publicly available data set, just to see across the city what’s being talked about, and where, and when,” she said. 

While the site is constantly expanding, six community boards in Brooklyn, mostly clustered in the northern half of the borough, are currently available through Block Party:

  • Community Board 1 in Greenpoint and Williamsburg
  • Community Board 2 in Downtown Brooklyn, Brooklyn Heights, Fort Greene, Boerum Hill, and Dumbo
  • Community Board 6 in Park Slope, Cobble Hill, Gowanus, Carroll Gardens, and Red Hook
  • Community Board 8 in Crown Heights, Prospect Heights, and Weeksville
  • Community Board 11 in Bensonhurst and Bath Beach
  • Community Board 14 in Flatbush, Midwood, and Kensington.