New website SoapBox Detroit aims to make city government more accessible

Daniel Arking calls it his “Furlough Friday” project.

As assistant corporation counsel for the City of Detroit, working in the city’s law department, Arking found his Fridays freed up over the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Like much of the staff, Arking was subject to work furloughs as the city wrestled with the onset of the pandemic.

Arking took the time off to fully realize an idea that he started to develop in 2017: SoapBox Detroit, a website that gathers city ordinance news and public meeting announcements from the city’s many different departments and divisions and compiles them in one location.

“I want to help lower the barriers for everyone across the city to access this information and make use of it,” Arking says. “There’s a difference between transparency and accessibility. It’s not a result of the city getting in the way of making this information available — even when they go to great lengths to comply with public meeting requirements, which can be hard in its own right — but how much further can we go.”

SoapBox Detroit pulls information from a number of city websites to create a Public Meeting Calendar. It’s easy to see how it’s hard to stay informed otherwise. Taking Thursday, Aug. 5, as an example, there were at least eight different public meetings scheduled that day, each of them from a different department and the news of which would have been found on the respective department’s website. SoapBox Detroit compiles them in one space and an email newsletter delivers public meeting news daily.

The site’s Law Library presents five year’s worth of city ordinances, approximately 110 of which have been enacted but remain unpublished, limiting the public’s access to ordinances uncodified but still law. And the Department Directory is just that, a directory of the dozens of departments, boards, committees, and other entities that make up city government.

Daniel Arking, creator of SoapBox Detroit.“The information is out there, but even as a city staffer it can be hard to access,” Arking says. “I live in the city and I work for the city and I have empathy for the residents, my neighbors, local businesses, and community groups who don’t have the same insights.”

This is a passion project for Arking, the work done independent of his position with the city. For all the hours he spent developing the concept, compiling information, and building the website, watching basic coding videos on YouTube, SoapBox Detroit doesn’t stand to make any money. He says he’s operating under the basic belief that this information should be free and accessible to all.

“One of the motivations for me is that city government really is a two-way street. This isn’t about applying further scrutiny to city dealings or broadcasting information on behalf of the city,” Arking says. “The more meaningful and deeper engagement from residents is a win-win for both sides.”

Visit SoapBox Detroit online today.

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MJ Galbraith is Model D's development news editor. Follow him on Twitter @mikegalbraith.