If Barack Obama wants to save the government a few million dollars and spare himself a headache or two, he’d be wise to hire Jerry Brito. With the help of web developers Peter Snyder and Kevin Dwyer, Brito created and now runs StimulusWatch.org, an interactive website that allows users to track tens of thousands of stimulus projects across the nation.
The site costs Brito, a 33-year-old senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Washington University, about $40 a year to host (Snyder and Dwyer work pro bono). That’s quite a deal compared to the $18 million price tag for the federal government’s Recovery.gov, which recently received a much-deserved thumping for over-reporting the number of jobs “saved or created” by the stimulus. (It even reported on jobs in congressional districts that don’t exist.) In an era of billion dollar health care and stimulus bills, $18 million is admittedly a drop in the vast ocean of federal debt, but then investing so much money on one malfunctioning website doesn’t exactly inspire one’s confidence in the government’s economic stewardship.
Brito, Snyder, and Dwyer began collaborating after Brito posted an appeal for coding help on the Technology Liberation Front last December. Brito had recently attended a press conference for the U.S. Conference of Mayors and wanted to create a database tracking the over 11,000 “shovel-ready” projects eligible for stimulus funds. “Let’s help President-Elect Obama do what he is promising,” Brito wrote. “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.’” Although Brito, Snyder, and Dwyer had never met before teaming up, they launched StimulusWatch a mere two months after Brito’s initial post.
StimulusWatch uses the power of “crowdsourcing” to keep tabs on the federal government. Users are invited to vote on whether projects in their neighborhoods are critical, add context to particular projects on their Wiki page, and debate the value of the plans. The proposals are then ranked from most to least critical, from most to least expensive, and by zip code. “The beauty is that you have more knowledge about [a local] project than anybody else,” explains Brito. His hope is that cities applying for funding will consider their constituents’ suggestions before finalizing a project. And now, with the recent launch of StimulusWatch 2.0, citizens can track and provide feedback on a project’s progress, budget, and its actual results.
In its first two months online, StimulusWatch received over 3 million visitors. The New York Times raved that StimulusWatch “easily outclasses Recovery.gov,” and reporters across the country jumped on the treasure trove of data Brito and company had unearthed. A local TV station in Minnesota did a spot on the city of Roseville’s request for $1.5 million to build a golf course clubhouse and maintenance facility, while a project to spend $100,000 to install doorbells in public housing in Mississippi became national news. The site hasn’t produced any bombshell stories of graft and corruption—at least, not yet. But Brito’s pro-bono project has enabled citizens to take a closer look at how their government actually operates and hold their elected officials accountable.
“The only folks against [transparency] are the folks that are in power,” says Brito. “But they can’t say that because it would be tantamount to saying, ‘We’re for secrecy.’” For those who would argue that Brito, a libertarian, has a partisan axe to grind, he points out that stimulus supporters can use StimulusWatch to detail all the worthy projects—roads, bridges, and schools—being funded in their neck of the woods. But, by the same token, stimulus opponents can search for the “least critical” projects, uncovering a bevy of six- and seven-figure bike paths and dog parks.
* * *
Brito and his colleagues are leading a new effort to put formerly social Web 2.0 technologies in the service of politics and power a data-driven democracy. As more and more information has become available online, a number of private citizens have taken it upon themselves to collect that data and make it more useful. In 1994, at the height of the Republican Revolution, Newt Gingrich pledged that government information “will be available to any citizen in the country at the same moment that it is available to the highest paid Washington lobbyist,” but it’s largely been privately-run websites—created by a cadre of transparency enthusiasts and tech geeks—that have made that promise a reality.
Looking for a committee report or a senator’s complete 2009 voting record? You’d do better to check WashingtonWatch.com (launched in 2001) or GovTrack.us (launched in 2004), just two of the more user-friendly and interactive alternatives to the Library of Congress’s cumbersome THOMAS system. On WashingtonWatch or GovTrack, you can bookmark and email pages, track statistical trends for members, and sign up for alerts on a particular bill. Need a video of a committee hearing that has long since disappeared from the Senate’s website? Try Metavid, which archives all live video feeds from Congress. (Metavid has even made its videos searchable by keyword using closed-caption transcripts from TV broadcasts.) And while the Federal Register has been online since 2003 at Regulations.gov, web surfers were too often left sifting through the hundreds of new federal regulations released each day to find the particular one they needed. Thanks to Brito’s OpenRegs.com, started in 2009, users can track their particular area of interest—be it environmental regulations or NASA—through category-specific RSS feeds. And they can do it all on their iPhones.
“We’re liberating some documents that aren’t otherwise widely available,” says Timothy Lee, a doctoral student in computer science and affiliate of the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University. Lee is the developer of RECAP, an add-on to the Firefox web browser that makes court records more accessible to the public. Currently, court documents are available only through the unwieldy government website PACER at a pricey eight cents per page. Now, users can download documents from PACER and then share them publicly through RECAP (PACER, in a nice, subversive touch, spelled backwards).
The government hasn’t gone after RECAP the way the recording industry went after music-sharing sites like Napster and Kazaa. “We’ve had a friendlier reception [from PACER] than I expected,” says Lee. The government’s current position is that government employees and those with fee waivers are not allowed to use RECAP. Reading between the lines, Lee believes that means everyone else is free to continue “liberating” court documents—giving individuals access to files that were previously available only to law firms, the government, and those with funds enough to foot PACER’s costly bill.
* * *
While Lee is busy dismantling the judicial paywall, Jim Harper is monitoring every piece of legislation moving through Congress on his website, WashingtonWatch. Harper, director of information policy studies at the Cato Institute, was inspired to create the site after listening to his friends “at cool dot-com companies” boast about their latest cutting-edge projects. “When do these cool changes come to government?” he wondered.
WashingtonWatch not only allows users to read legislation and comment on it, it breaks down the Congressional Budget Office’s cost predictions into cost per person and per family. (The cost of the bailout? $2,000 per person.) Thanks to the efforts of crowdsourcers, Harper says, people can now think “about legislation the way they think about leather jackets, boxes of cereal, and cars: ‘How much do I have to put in the bank to pay for this?’”
But the group that has really driven the “Information Is Power” credo to prominence this year is the Sunlight Foundation. “It’s the only organization whose complete brief is to promote transparency, and they’re very well-funded,” says Brito. Founded in April 2006 in the wake of the Jack Abramoff scandal, the Sunlight Foundation has created and funded numerous websites to keep a watchful eye on government. One Sunlight application, Legistalker, follows members of congress with the ferocity and dedication of a TMZ blogger hot on the trail of Megan Fox, pulling together all the recent news items, votes, YouTube channels, and Twitter feeds related to a legislator on one page. Another site, politicalpartytime.org, tracks which lucky pol has had the most parties thrown for him or her, which lobbyists funded them, and how much money each pulled in.
Sunlight bills itself as nonpartisan, though Brito says, “I don’t think that they would object to me saying that the folks there tend to be left-leaning.” Yet, as a familiar bromide would have it (politics, strange bedfellows), left-wing Sunlight has found itself united with opponents of cap-and-trade and health care legislation in asking members of Congress: If you’re going to overhaul the energy and health care industries, is it too much to ask that you read the legislation (and allow Americans to read it) before you vote on it?
Yes, it is, came the reply from a number of leading congressional Democrats. Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA) scoffed at the notion of reading the entire cap-and-trade bill in May. “I certainly don’t claim to know everything that’s in this bill,” he explained at a committee hearing. “We relied very heavily on the scientists.” House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers (D-MI) echoed that thinking in July when he told the National Press Club: “What good is reading the bill if it’s a thousand pages and you don’t have two days and two lawyers to find out what it means after you read the bill?”
It’s odd that congressional Democrats, who do in fact have a couple of lawyers to explain the more difficult legislative language, can’t be bothered to read through their two major domestic policy initiatives, while an online army of unpaid bloggers and average citizens are eager to dissect the legislation. There’s no question that the corruption exposed by groups like the Sunlight Foundation helped bring down Dennis Hastert and the congressional Republicans in 2006. And if the bets made by Brito, Lee, and Harper prove right, then congressional Democrats may very well learn in 2010 and 2012 what it feels like to get hacked and mashed should they too ignore the power of the grassroots transparency movement.
John McCormack is a deputy online editor at the Weekly Standard. Photos by Katherine Ruddy.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Andrew Stiles
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Kathlyn Ehl