want to change the world? learn to program
Joshua-Michéle Ross, (via @timoreily) on O’Reily Radar, tells the story of Stimuluswatch.org. As he rightly notes, yet another example of Clay Shirky‘s “self-organization without organizations.” In a nutshell, someone (Jerry Brito) said:
hey, lets have a service that allows people to rate and comment on new economic initiatives, and gives decision makers a better view of where they should put our money.
A couple of other guys heard this idea, and figured its worth a few days work and $40 hosting charges, and bingo:
StimulusWatch.org was built to help the new administration keep its pledge to invest stimulus money smartly, and to hold public officials to account for the taxpayer money they spend. We do this by allowing you, citizens around the country with local knowledge about the proposed “shovel-ready” projects in your city, to find, discuss and rate those projects. These projects are not part of the stimulus bill. They are candidates for funding by federal grant programs once the bill passes. Learn more by reading the FAQs.
How can you contribute? Find a project that interests you, or about which you have special knowledge, and let us know what you think. You can find projects by searching or by browsing by locality or program type. Once you find a program, there are three things you can do: 1) vote on whether you believe the project is critical or not; 2) edit the project’s description and points in favor or against, and 3) post a comment in the conversation about the project.
But, note bene. Mr Ross interviews one of the creators of the service:
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.
What techies seem to forget is that most people can’t even read that. I have some good friends who would probably, if asked how to implement Jerry Brito’s idea, would suggest we call the guy who runs the internet and ask him if he could do that. If this idea would have fallen into institutional hands, I’m sure a three year mega-million project would have ensued, most probably based on sharepoint.
The critical resource for fixing the economy, society and the environment is open-minded hackers with a political edge. Please, if you want to do some good, don’t study economy, social science or environmental studies. Learn to program.