; The Falling Cost and Accelerated Speed of Group Action

StimulusWatch.jpg is a great example of how easy it is today for people to, as Clay Shirky says, “organize without organizations.” began after Jerry Brito attended a mayor’s Conference and posted this request:

“Let’s help President-Elect Obama do what he is promising. Let’s help him “prioritize” so the projects so that we “get the most bang for the buck” and identify those that are old school “pork coming out of Congress”. We can do this through good clean fun crowdsourcing. Who can help me take the database on the Conference of Mayors site and turn each project into a wiki-page or other mechanism where local citizens can comment on whether the project is actually needed or whether it’s a boondoggle? How can we create an app that will let citizens separate the wheat from the pork and then sort for Congress and the new administration the project in descending order or relevancy?

Several developers read the post and got to work.  Stimuluswatch went live on February 2nd with all the features Brito had requested. Last Friday alone there were 20,000 unique hits to the site. Total time to complete, seven weeks including holidays. Total cost – about $40 in monthly hosting fees.

I caught up with two of the developers behind the effort, Peter Snyder (via phone) and Kevin Dwyer (via email). The story they told me exemplifies how the web enables some remarkably fast group action. Here is how Kevin tells it – and pay attention to how many references there are to some form of open source, web service, or plug-and-play functionality that the team used to get this done.

“After reading Jerry’s original blog post about the US Conference of Mayors report, I quickly wrote some python code to grab (screen scrape) all of the projects from their web site and put them into a sqlite database. The lxml module was awesome for this. Brian Mount took it and remastered the database into a MySQL database. Peter Snyder then popped up and offered to build the web site using a PHP based system called CodeIgniter. It lives up to its name (and Pete is awesome) because he had a fairly complex site up in no time.
Now that we had a great base for the site, Jerry wrote copy and worked up some CSS/HTML which gives the site a great look and feel. Jerry also helped us integrate disqus and tumblr, which definitely helped reduce the number of wheels we had to reinvent. I experimented with several wiki backends and settled on MediaWiki. Using a perl module, I created wiki stubs for each of the projects to give users a bit of a framework for recording any facts they researched about each project, as well as listing points in favor and against. The whole thing now runs on an Amazon EC2 image.

Peter also pointed out that in the short time since launch, users themselves have helped cleanse errors in the data that was pulled from the mayor’s database and already begun filling out details on these local projects; including showering great disdain on the “doorbells” project.

None of these people knew each other previously. They were brought together by blog post into a common effort. They used open source tools in rapid development. They plugged in off the shelf online social technologies (disqus, tumblr and mediawiki) to create a forum to discuss these local projects. They achieved this in seven weeks. In fact, according to Peter, “the real effort here was more like two weeks”.

It will be interesting to see how performs as a place to allow transparency and citizen involvement in civic projects.  As we the public wait for to launch, perhaps we should just be asking them to give us the data. We can do the rest.

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