Crowdsourced accountability project: Progress, but we still need help from developers

by on December 14, 2008 · 34 comments

Mayor's Project Napkin SKetchUPDATE: I’ve created a Google Group for this project. I hope you’ll join it and help us build this tool.

Last Thursday I asked for help creating a site that would facilitate crowdsourcing the task of prioritizing the 11,000+ projects proposed in the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ $73 billion “Main Street Economic Recovery” stimulus plan. The point of doing this is to help President-Elect Obama keep his promise that any stimulus spending will be directed at critical infrastructure, and not pork. Roads and bridges and schoolhouses are infrastructure, but dog parks and tennis centers in wealthy neighborhoods probably don’t count.

Software developer Kevin Dwyer stepped up to the plate, took the mayors’ report, and parsed out the projects into an SQLite database. You can find the database here and Kevin’s take on what he did here. Now that we have the data in an easy-to-remix format, I’d like to ask for your help developing the backend for the site.

Going forward I can offer graphic design and copywriting to the project, as well as cat-hearding, which are my comparative advantages. What I don’t have are the technical chops to code the backend. If you are a developer, or know someone who is, and might be willing to help, please read on.

The functionality I’d like the site to have is a lot like what WashingtonWatch.com offers. Each proposed project would have its own item page. That item page would list the project name, city and state, cost, and estimated number of jobs it would create, all of which are included in the database. Then each item page would have a wiki section where users could write (hopefully) neutral POV descriptions of the projects to put them in context. Under that there would be a comments section where users could trade their opinions on the merits of the project. (Perhaps these could be threaded, maybe using Disqus.) Finally, and importantly, each item page will have an up-or-down voting mechanism that will let users register whether they think the project is critical infrastructure or not critical infrastructure. This voting is what will let us rank projects from critical to porcine.

(Here is a sketch of the interface with notes. It’s a lot like an individual bill page on Washington Watch.)

Now, apart from search functionality, we would have to offer easy browsing for folks to find projects that interest them. I think the home page should offer a link to search by city and state. Clicking on that link should offer a list of states. Clicking on a state should offer links to all cities in that state, as well as a list of all projects in that state in case a user doesn’t want to drill-down any further. Clicking on a city will display a list of all projects in that city.

Each of these lists I’m describing should be sortable by name, locality, cost, and estimated number of jobs created. That way someone can click on a state then sort by cost so they can see the most costly projects first. On the home page there should also be a way to browse all projects in the country ordered by cost. Another possible sorting option might be how a project is ranked by users.

So what do you think? I’d love to hear any thoughts or criticism you might have on this proposed interface. I’d also love to hear any ideas of the best way to technically implement this (especially if you’d like to volunteer to help out). I’ve been told one way to do this is to use MediaWiki and create a page for each project. That sounds good but I’d like to make sure we have the ability to rank and sort like I’ve described. Is that possible? I’ve also seen Pligg, a Digg clone, which might do the trick, but it while it has commenting and voting, it doesn’t have a wiki component. Finally, we could beg Jim Harper to let us use his Washington Watch software, but it’s custom-made and I think it’d probably be easier to use something off the shelf. I’m sure there are other ways to do it and it would be great if we could hash them out here. Thanks for your time!

  • Grimp

    Also allow sorting by critical/porcine rating

  • http://zgp.org/~dmarti/ Don Marti

    How are bridges necessarily “infrastructure” when the most famous pork project of the past 4 years was the “Bridge to Nowhere?” Just throwing money at transportation is pretty porky — look at Japan.

  • http://jerrybrito.com Jerry Brito

    True. That's why folks with local knowledge can use this tool to put the project in context. It's not going to be a perfect tool, but it will hopefully leave us at the end of the day with more information than we have now. Right now we just have to take the mayors' word that all $73 billion are worth spending.

  • http://squareone.pheared.net kvn

    This might be a good candidate for a Google appengine project. I signed up for an account months ago and have been looking for a problem that could be suitable for it. I'll see how hard it is to move the data into one of their Datastores and throw up a dirty GUI for browsing.

  • http://enigmafoundry.wordpress.com/ eee_eff

    I'd like to participate in such a project, however Jerry Brito's track recordd of repeatedly deleting my posts because he disagrees with them causes me to question whether any input into this project would be similarly “filtered”

    To create a community you need credibility and moral connectivity. Jerry, by his own actions, has cast himself outside of any community with common goals and destroyed his own credibility.

    Outside of Jerry brito's own issues, this website has a clear political agenda, and is deeply mired in anti-social actions of its corporate paymasters. Examples: denial of global warming, and acting as apologists for Microsoft's many repressive actions.

    eee_eff

  • http://enigmafoundry.wordpress.com eee_eff

    Crowdsourcing as a methodolgy to decide which of these projects to proceed with seems particularly bad.

    What training experience and education does the average citizen have to enable them to measure and evaluate different projects? Less populous areas will have their projects left out, while cities, having higher internet connectivty and population, would probably have their projects voted up.

    Perhaps crowd sourcing each project to a community of experts who could evaluate different projects would make more sense.

    My vote would go to those projects which make our communities greener and more sustainable–only have to look at the mess in Iraq and the ruined US automakers to see where ignoring little things like fuel economy and our reliance on oversees energy gets us in the long run.

    Didn't you have a series of post arguing against the CAFE standards, Jerry, or was that one of the other 'free marketeer' here at TLF?

  • snyderp

    I am a PHP / Rails freelancer and am interested in this project. I've got a good amount of experience doing custom app creation along these lines, though less using the specific packages you mentioned. I don't regularly follow the comments sections on this blog (I use google reader) but if you're interested in adding a developer to the team, feel free to contact me at snyderp – at – gmail

    I'd love to be a part of this projet.

    Pete

  • http://pinayspeak.com/pinaytest/ BusbySeo

    Davvero non voglio ringraziarvi per questo articolo che rafforzare la mia sapienza e della scienza …

  • timon

    “provide water to the 53 Estetes subdivision”… sounds stimulating! Tasers and PCs for cops, $60,000,000 in new equipment for an Austin public agency that is expected to produce 0 jobs, whereas $70,000,000 worth of road building in another jurisdiction is expected to produce 42,000 jobs. And this is supposed to be the corrective to bad accounting. It is also fascinating to see requests for amounts like $23,580,821, or that a given project will create 101 jobs.

    I would be happy to help with this if I can. As far as preliminary visualization, there is a nice firefox plugin for browsing sqlite files here. I had to rebuild it as a sqlite3 file to make it work with that add-on, I put that version up here. I also adapted some of Kevin's code to make it work with MySQL. If the goal is just to have a page with the Mayors' description and wiki and comment widgets, that shouldn't be too hard. It would be interesting but more challenging to come up with some good heuristics that give you a feel for overall fishiness of a given project — say cities or proposals that are unusually expensive compared to some norm within a category. I will futz with this and try to make something interesting.

    What is your goal as far as time to release?

  • Macho Man Savage

    Wow, what a complete turd you are.

  • enora

    I'm curious, could such a database enable one to pull out types of projects by text.?Such as return all projects with “energy efficient” in the description? that could provide interesting stats.

  • http://jerrybrito.com Jerry Brito

    Yes. However we structure this, it should have a search function. That functionality will be made even more useful as users add context using the wiki. They might add some keywords that are relevant but not found in the simple project title that the mayors give us.

  • http://jerrybrito.com Jerry Brito

    Thanks, Timon! I'd like to release this ASAP, but beggars can't be choosers. What do you think is possible?

    I think I'm going to let a few more folks find their way here and then I'll launch a Google Group to coordinate the effort. Thanks again!

  • http://jerrybrito.com Jerry Brito

    Thanks so much! I think late today I'll start a Google Group to coordinate. Cheers!

  • http://angrydictator.com PJ Doland

    There are a couple of different ways to approach this.

    The easiest and quickest option would probably be to populate a MediaWiki install with a page for each line item. Then you could build a secondary search interface for the bills, with all the metadata (cost/state/etc.) in a separate database.

    The better solution would just be a full custom-built web application. The wiki change/diff tracking is probably the only somewhat complicated element to the process.

  • http://angrydictator.com PJ Doland

    There are a couple of different ways to approach this.

    The easiest and quickest option would probably be to populate a MediaWiki install with a page for each line item. Then you could build a secondary search interface for the bills, with all the metadata (cost/state/etc.) in a separate database.

    The better solution would just be a full custom-built web application. The wiki change/diff tracking is probably the only somewhat complicated element to the process.

  • http://thevitaminkid.blogspot.com autodidact

    Wow! He's a global warming denier? I like the guy already.

  • http://jerrybrito.com Jerry Brito

    Kevin, I've created a Google Group for the project and I hope you'll join it. You can find it at: http://groups.google.com/group/crowdaccountability

  • http://jerrybrito.com Jerry Brito

    Timon, I've created a Google group for the project and I hope you'll join it. You can find it at: http://groups.google.com/group/crowdaccountability

  • http://enigmafoundry.wordpress.com eee_eff

    Well, as usual the pro-TLF camp takes the high road, call someone a turd. What intelligence!

  • http://intersindo.com/seo-contest/ Busby SEO

    If I can do that thing I will join. but it's look like so defficult for me.
    thanks.

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  • http://magnum4d.blogspot.com/ magnum4d

    How are bridges necessarily “infrastructure” when the most famous pork project of the past 4 years was the “Bridge to Nowhere?” Just throwing money at transportation is pretty porky — look at Japan.

  • http://learningselling.blogspot.com Learning Selling

    haha easy dude!

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    Great dude! It's pretty easy…

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