Designed for learning

learning – teaching – research – design – technology

want to change the world? learn to program

Joshua-Michéle Ross, (via @timoreily) on O’Reily Radar, tells the story of 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: 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.


February 14, 2009 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , ,


  1. Yes, it is pleasing to see more and more products being built that are open and tweakable. But you notice it still involved a team of people. I would be interested to hear about how they collaborated and what tools they used for that.

    Comment by ryanchadwick | February 15, 2009 | Reply

  2. Hi there Ryan. I did not ask that question of the two coders I spoke with. However my sense was that this was a collaboration via email. That would have been a good question to ask. I am posting a similar post to my own blog (which is more geared towards non-techies. I will ask the question and, if when I find out I will comment again here.

    Comment by Joshua-Michéle Ross | February 15, 2009 | Reply

  3. I would put my money on email. As Clay Shirky says: email is still the killer app of social software. I would also expect that if that project persists, they will set up some specific tools – a developer wiki, maybe an issue tracker, source control. But for ad-hoc, quick and reliable – nothing beats email.
    (that doesn’t mean there isn’t a market for managed intranets 🙂 )

    Comment by yishaym | February 15, 2009 | Reply

  4. Hey guys,

    The first communication was in the comments of Jerry’s blog. Kevin then put some code and data up on his personal google site, and most everything after that was through a google group Jerry set up(‘crowdaccountability’), which is essentially an old school mailing list with a nice web interface. We uploaded and exchanged some files and SQL dumps via the group and email attachments, it is all still up and publicly available. Peter had an unstyled prototype up within a couple of days. His quote about the time frame is worth noting — his first code was done quickly and there was a pretty long period around the holidays without much activity. The data went through one revision and the site went through several rapid revisions in late January — a net cost in time that matches his 2 week figure. Another little collaboration bit: we had an existing, very cheap cloud Xen Ubuntu instance from Slicehost to experiment with MediaWiki and other database related stuff, as an extremely low-risk way to share hardware, being essentially unborkable. In the event almost all the primary stable development happened on a subdomain of Peter’s personal site, and “collaboration” is a bit of an overstatement with respect to the many problems he solved alone and quickly. Still it is a great feeling, and a promising data point, that you can now share root passwords to servers with near-strangers, knowing that even the worst theoretical abuse could be reversed in a couple of minutes.

    All-in-all a very fun and rewarding project, not least for being noticed favorably on blogs like your’s and Ross’s.

    Comment by Brian Mount | February 16, 2009 | Reply

  5. Thanks Brian, I’m flattered!
    btw, do you guys know ? They’ve been doing similar stuff in the UK for donkey’s years. You should get in touch with them. I see you’re thinking about maps & visualisation – they have a sorta-SIG on that.

    Comment by yishaym | February 16, 2009 | Reply

  6. […] see you its done My post on has generated some interesting comments. I guess that’s what an RT from […]

    Pingback by see you its done « Designed for learning | February 16, 2009 | Reply

  7. […] see how its done My post on has generated some interesting comments. I guess that’s what an RT from […]

    Pingback by see how its done « Designed for learning | February 16, 2009 | Reply

  8. […] the idea of selling our data off in £20 chunks.  For the geeks amongst you, this article  “Want to change the world?  Learn to Program” which was pointed out by O’Reilly (the blogger, not the builder in Fawlty Towers), is […]

    Pingback by Bomb damage maps of Blackheath « The Blackheath Bugle | February 16, 2009 | Reply

  9. Hey guys,
    Thanks for the feedback. I checked out crowdaccountability also and it was a most interesting read to see the project evolving, and the excitement as you saw the fruits of your labour.

    Comment by ryanchadwick | February 16, 2009 | Reply

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