; 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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  • mickey

    illuminating article and great effort by codies. President Obama told us yesterday at the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birthday, and this exercise certainly supports, “…While each of us must do our part, work as hard as we can, and be as responsible as we can – in the end, there are certain things we cannot do on our own. There are certain things we can only do together. There are certain things only a union can do.” For complete text of the speech, see

  • mickey

    illuminating article and great effort by codies. President Obama told us yesterday at the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birthday, and this exercise certainly supports, “…While each of us must do our part, work as hard as we can, and be as responsible as we can – in the end, there are certain things we cannot do on our own. There are certain things we can only do together. There are certain things only a union can do.” For complete text of the speech, see

  • DCS

    I hate to be a killjoy here, but so what? Projects like this are idealistic but ultimately naive and meaningless. The money appropriated by the so-called stimulus bill will, as in the past, go entirely to those who are the most politically connected…the only thing that has changed is the little upper-case letter next to the names of the President and the various committee chairs (i.e., from (R) to (D)). The bill itself ballooned to 1,400+ pages, it was not publicly posted for review 48-hours before the House vote, as promised, minority members were reportedly not even let into the room during conference negotiations and at this point no one has a d*mn clue about what fiscal horrors are embedded in this legislative monstrosity. The inhabitants of DC and state government are by-and-large the same venal, amoral, power-hungry cleptocrats today as during the Bush years.

  • DCS — so cynical. Frankly, I don’t believe that most politicians are venal, amoral, power-hungry cleptocrats. They’re people. And they, by and large, represent the people who elected them. (There are exceptions, of course. But the same is true among the population at large.)

    I’m actually very hopeful. I think that the process — and government generally — will become increasingly transparent — people people demand it. People who are not transparent and up front will go away. But I think projects such as are steps. I’m fascinated to see how things develop.

    Meanwhile, you can hear Jerry Brito talk about how the site was created on Federal News Radio 1500 AM’s Daily Debrief with Chris Dorobek and Amy Morris.

  • George Webb

    I have to agree with DCS on this one. Politicians are not horrible people, but they are ever mindful of organizing resources for re-election. Blagovich was an extreme example, but politicians have to walk that fine line between political horse trading and ethics violations. Not every politician can claim Obama’s media power and the fund raising that goes with it. If you just look at the projects, you can see the pork spilling over the barrel. Or you can see the cost shifting for projects nobody can object to like “pavement”, freeing up budgets for horse trading elsewhere. It is so true that solar and wind have no lobby, and that is so obvious if you go through some of the projects. I applaud this site for shining a lot of light, I am just horrified by what I saw when the light did come up. In actual fact, most of these projects are just cost shifting to pay for costly retirement programs of powerful public employee unions. Guaranteeing the very comfortable retirement of 10% of people is not going to save us. This is the union problem all over again, only its the public employees now.

  • Robert Meyer

    DCS hit it on the head. Stimuluswatch sure looked to me like a way to expose the socialist agenda, but, as George Webb pointed out, shining the light seemed to present another opportunity to justify rather than oppose the expense.
    While Mickey and Christopher Dorobek seem to imply Stimuluswatch is a step toward transparency and participation, I have to disagree.
    The porkulus package broke Obama’s promises of transparency, responsibility, and accountability, and should reveal his political style.
    Our children will be paying the price for the rest of their lives.

  • DeeG

    Why is Puerto Rico is getting $22billion? They are not a state.

  • common-sense

    Yup. DCS nailed it. Sorry, fellas. Nice site, but policing a runaway government requires a heavier hand.

    Having said that, this website has significant value to it…I’m tightening up my stock portfolio based on the industries where the porkulus funds will be spent. Oh yeah, I also saved money on my car insurance from Gei…


  • DCS

    Christopher, I hate to be a cynic, but I’ve been an observer of politics for ~20 years and the situation just gets worse with every passing year: the size of government, its intrusiveness, the waste and sheer stupidity inherent in so much of the budget process, the increasing brazenness of media / lobbyists / bureaucrats / elected officials, etc. My own congressman (Duke Cunningham) is in federal prison while Sen. Daschle is appointed by Pres. Obama to head HHS, not because Daschle is any less corrupt but because he was smart enough to essentially launder the money through his wife’s lobbying activity. We live in a country today where a majority of the citizenry are literally incapable of naming their own representative and Senators — Gallup has polled on this more than once — let alone understanding what’s contained in the so-called stimulus bill. Transparency is only helpful if a majority of voters have an interest…and at this particular point in history they obviously don’t. Instead our political class — along with far too many voters — prefer to play this absurd kabuki-like game we call “partisan politics” where Republicans accept anything fellow Republicans do as fine-and-dandy while anything the Democrats do is evil…and the exact same dynamic occurs among the Democrats. Until *that* changes, I honestly don’t see how we have a prayer of fixing our problems.

  • DCS is assuming this database is static. Now that the Recover Act has passed, grant proposals will pour in. They can be added to the database and subsequent input used to evaluate them.

    Perhaps the public can use the Net to get in front of the funding process.

  • Stimulus Watch is a great public service. I linked to it on my blog. It is one of the few places where the truth about this massive fraud is transparent.

  • Louis Merick

    DCS is right. Go the the Alaska page. Our New Senator Mark Begich was the mayor of Anchorage, before his election to the Senate. He ran on a campaign of no more pork and no more selective restrictive prejudiced allocations of money. Well this is the biggest pork barrel money I have seen yet for this state and talk about going to just one selective restrictive prejudiced allocation, it all went to his home town. Bare in mind all this applied for money happened while he was still mayor, and came to fruition once he was seated in the Senate, and not one cent went anywhere else in the state that could use it, but I would hope refuse it. Bare also in mind he was in the majority party and got a chance to see what was happening while out other senator of minority party got to see nothing and participate in nothing. I am so disappointed in him would like to see this state recall him. But the largest city in the state will make sure that does not happen.

  • Rios

    I want to ask know the same thing as DeeG!
    Why is Porto Rico listed in this package?
    Are the rumors right? Does Nancy Pelosi and her Husband (and Associates) a vested interest down there?

  • JoAnn

    On Pres. Lincoln’s birthday, PresBO said we all should be as responsible as possible. As one who has been responsible all my life, as well as a great number of friends, our investments went south with the stock market plunge, due to the
    housing debacle perputrated by Frank, Dodd, etal.
    Now where is our reward for being responsible, being given to the irresponsible home buyers.
    Furthermore, as each job covered by the stimulus package is completed, what happens to the workers who were hired to complete them. Back in the unemployment line. Sounds like a band aid effect to me.

  • roger

    Hey what a great idea this should have access to thing needs some adult supervision.Who better to do this than honest,hardworking americans.Maybe,just maybe enough people will get involved to make a difference and catch some porkers at the trough. Awesome job Ill stay tuned and spread the word, Thanks

  • Fred Fourcher

    I was traveling in Latin America this past week and when I look at the this spending bill and where it goes. We have now truly surpassed the countries to the south of us in our level of political corruption. Transparency International monitors corruption around the globe and the countries with the highest level of corruption have the lowest standard of living. I can clearly see our standard of living dropping with each dollar wasted by this bill.

  • Viking

    My senator from New York, Chuckie Schumer Dem. said that the American people don’t care about the “porky” spending throughout this bill. He is an arrogant ass laughing at the naive fools that keep overwhelmingly electing him into office. Maybe this is the push that is needed to vote him out next time. The only good news is that the bulk of this Socialist Spending Plan (60%) wont be spent until after the 2010 midterm elections. If the American people want to salvage the bulk of this waste, vote these clowns out in 2010 and lessen the burden for our children and their children.

  • Mark in Spokane

    Viking, good call. It is indeed odd that the largest legislation in history was not even accorded a read or inspection per Dictator Pelosi. After reading it, now we know why. It is nothing but a breathtakingly huge patronage project. This bag of partisan garbage would have to have been written well over a year ago, as it is too involved. It was pork waiting for our slaughter.


    For Rios – Re:Puerto Rico – no Pelosi does not have great holdings there – check out

  • Douglas

    “The most effectual means of preventing [the perversion of power into tyranny are] to illuminate, as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large, and more especially to give them knowledge of those facts which history exhibits, that possessed thereby of the experience of other ages and countries, they may be enabled to know ambition under all its shapes, and prompt to exert their natural powers to defeat its purposes.” –Thomas Jefferson

    Show me the pork! – Doug

  • charlie

    United States colony

    On July 25, 1898, during the Spanish-American War, Puerto Rico was invaded by the United States with a landing at Guánica. As an outcome of the war, Spain ceded Puerto Rico, along with Cuba, the Philippines, and Guam to the U.S. under the Treaty of Paris.[16]

    Puerto Rico continues to be under the US governance, has congressional representation etc. it is as close to being a state without actually being one as is possible ..

  • joe

    Yes all of you who are against the stimulus package or right on target .. I think none of those stats should get a Dime in stimulus money. Except my state (Missouri) my state is ok. We need it to reemploy and just make thing better here, in general. But you other people are just downright wasteful


  • w

    The stimulus is all pork…look at the projects. 8 billion for harry reids railroad? in Charlotte, 6 jobs to replace lightbulbs?

    Did you notice obama has issued two executive orders, the first requires union labor to do the projects funded by the stimulus funds, the second allows the secretary of labor to “blacklist” non union companies if they get the smaller jobs.

    Also, if a non union company gets a construction job, the workers still must pay the union dues (to the union bosses) even though they are not union members. (92% of the construction workers in the US have chosen not to join unions, but they will still have to pay union dues)

    If you take the money, you will get the Obama social and political agenda…

    You may say he has bought “Chicago Politics to Washington” and now to every state…by putting us on the “dole” and we dont have the courage to say “no” to the money…be are being “bought” and we are willingly going down the road to destruction…

  • Lori

    This stimulus package is pork pure and simple. It does nothing but give little boosts just prior to election cycles. It will bury our country in debt and destroy jobs not create them.

    I’ve never seen such a disgusting display of power and money grabbing in my life. And this is at all levels of government not just Federal.

    I hope you enjoy your $13.00 a week which by the way adds up to $52.00 not $65.00 a month – there is Obama being transparent yet again.

    The only possible thing this database is going to do is possibly give us something to complain about at a local level. But even if we complain do you actually think anyone is going to give the money back? No – of course not!

    This should have been presented for public debate prior to passing this piece of pork not after the fact. After it’s been passed it’s too late to stop it.

  • Its great you guys decided to ‘watch’what the president does..Perhaps you can help me reach there directly, seeing that the crisis will reach critical proportion, in a relatively short time from now.

    I have no real way to reach the President or anyone at that level, but perhaps you guys do.
    ‘Stimulus’ has a ‘cost’ factor that US cannot support.

    · Principle One – How do we build the modern electricity grid?
    · Principle Two – How do we reduce our reliance on foreign oil?

    I can address both aspects.

    While you watch the Senate cement a US calamity, understand that leaders are not very good at ‘listening’ but major disaster does tend to improve the hearing of people. If you cannot see what’s coming, even with the ‘stimulus’ plan that actually has zero regenerative component for the economy, then you’ll surely see things more clearly by 2010.
    You can sit back, and watch leaders take catastrophic steps which ironically, some believe to be correct…If you look carefully, you may understand that NO amount of liquidity can fix the expanding problems. Realistically..have you seen world leaders produce ‘one’ real solution yet?

    For a start, the senate cannot identify ‘mass and rising unemployment’ as the root cause, and generally, if you cannot assess a root cause, you can never fix a problem. They identify it as ‘housing correction’and ‘credit squeeze’ , and media swallows that. They call simple ‘liabilities’, ‘toxic assets’, and these are the spins.

    If I were to say the entire US senate is actually guilty of ‘being asleep at the switch’ that would be an understatement, but everyone is really good at bickering, fingerpointing and laying blame.

    You might find the content of my note unimportant, but ..perhaps read it, and keep it in mind. You might remember it sometime in the near future. Its not a note of doom..merely a fact of consequence. As like many other times, it will not be because US was not told, but because US government, does not ‘listen’.

    NEW Concept- World FIRST: The generation of unlimited , daily, clean electricity into the national power grid, in volumes that with implementation, will outstrip the combined power yields of wind and solar energy – Concept currently UNKNOWN as alternate energy source.

    In the light of the energy problems being experienced across the globe, I would like to be afforded an opportunity to present a solution to lacking energy policy, under the framework
    of a direct governmental agreement. I respectfully request such an arrangement due to the urgency of the global meltdown, avoiding the normal protocols of patents.

    I would appreciate the opportunity to tender the concept, to be verified by any governmental team of engineers, planners, architects and scientists to directly present their verified findings to the relevant senate committee.

    If interested in the proposal, I can more clearly outline the potential for massive job creation, financial stimulation and stabilization of the stock markets, and all related industry, and markets and ultimately the methodology that can be applied to achieving better energy security, helping wean economies from high oil dependance.

    Consideration of this proposal may lead you to conclude that less can be invested in wind/solar/biofuels, and still have a more positive energy yield. You might also consider the impacts of substantially lowered carbon emissions and the related effects on climate change that can be more directly addressed.

    As you see the nations of the globe deteriorate, in spite of every stimulus effort I would urge you to understand that liquidity, in this instance, can fix nothing.

    Thank you for any consideration.

    Yours Sincerely.

    If you have the time,read the following carefully:

  • jum

    Why is this website called O’reilly radar.Its not after Bill O’Reilly is it? I hope not.

  • dba

    Does anyone know if a copy of the 1400+ page bill is available online?

    I know what I hear in the media, but I know that the media only tells you what they want you to know. Therefore, I would like to read this horrendous bill myself.

  • Bernard Scott

    I am confused by you folks that call the projects in this bill “pork.” The descriptions are not long enough to fully understand unless you have some knowledge of the geography of the work. There were some projects in my home town that I could identify.
    The work I could identify all seem needed to me. Would they be the projects I would fund? probably not, but I am not the elected representatives in Grand Rapids, MI. Would the projects increase the quality of life in Grand Rapids? Yes without a doubt.
    As I skimmed the projects in other states they seem to be derived form the expressed needs of the citizens in those cities; schools repaired, public housing improved, parks refurbished, walking trails developed, and water treatment systems improved. These items are important and improve the quality of life for the citizens. They also seem to be capital investments, worthy of borrowing money.
    I borrowed money to buy houses and cars. Having a house and a car improved my life and the life of my children. I was glad to pay the money back. The same is true for society. Safe water, quality school buildings, recreation, and safe streets are worth the investment.

  • Jum – we are not affiliated with Bill O’Reilly in any way – and you are not the first to ask.

    Bernard – I appreciate your comment. My initial point was looking at Stimuluswatch as an example of how web services and open source tools lower the cost and time to create meaningful, functional software. I was surprised (shame on me) to find all of the splenetic comments on the ineptitude or utter corruption of government. While I do not wish to be an apologist for the government, I had the same experience that you did. Many of the projects in my area had merit. Our local infrastructure and schools have been ignored for years and this neglect leads to long-term consequences we all too often ignore.

  • Jay Gamel


    I agree with you completely. I’m glad the site gives the “i hate gummint” crowd a place to vent, but from what I’ve seen of projects slated in my region, they all have social benefit. I may not have picked specific projects as my top priorities, but I’ll be happy to pay them off over the years, like I do my house and car.

    Now that the commies are gone, “socialists” are the monsters hiding under the bed.

    PS Anonymous: thanks for clearing up the O’Reilly connection. You should make it more apparent, because that name may be attracting the crowd venting here. I think you have done a great service. Thanks.

  • Linda

    Nevi, I think the reason you can’t get any feedback from Obama or other higher ups is because you are keeping your energy idea a secret. If you just tell people you have a plan but don’t tell them what it is, they won’t listen. I agree that most of the clean energy sources Congress seems most interested in (e.g. clean coal, natural gas, ethanol, biodiesel and wind power) won’t solve our problems, but in some communities the cleanest of these – eg wind and solar – will at least be a start. But if you want people to listen to you, it is time to stop saying “listen to me” and tell us what it is you want to say.

  • I am confused by you folks that call the projects in this bill “pork.” The descriptions are not long enough to fully understand unless you have some knowledge of the geography of the work. There were some projects in my home town that I could identify.

  • I hate to be a killjoy here, but so what? Projects like this are idealistic but ultimately naive and meaningless. The money appropriated by the so-called stimulus bill will, as in the past, go entirely to those who are the most politically connected…the only thing that has changed is the little upper-case letter next to the names of the President and the various committee chairs (i.e., from (R) to (D)).