colossal.txt v.1 (the future, mostly)
watchdog.net
march-5-2009
by christopher blewer-budnick

preface

This is mostly a document looking toward the future, on what we want to do, why we want to do those things, what we need that we don't have and how we'll get it (be it through rsync or foia), what we have now and aren't doing much with, and breaking some of the gaps into small projects that we can ship out to the volunteers list, and large projects we can work on or put together proposals for.

I'll probably be missing a lot, and this is also a bit abbreviated, a lot of what I have in the rough draft isn't really in a paragraph format and is pretty messy. I'm hoping to post something more significant over the weekend, and a bit was lost in a kernel panic last night, so, I'm trying to move past that and save more frequently. This also is a bit of a rehash of the vision email I sent out earlier.

I'm also going to be asking a lot of questions over the next few weeks, many of which are probably obvious, but I want to make sure that I look at this with new eyes and don't look over anything that might be important.

So, with that said, this is going to be a tiny bit of history and the rest will be ideas, things I've looked at and think can be different. I'm hoping that out of this we can generate a few immediate projects, and then there will be a second and third and forth version of this document in the next week until it's a final look at where watchdog is now, at which point maybe it can be chopped up and made into living wikis.

the rest

Watchdog can take a few forms, project or organization, and I'm more much interested in Watchdog as an organization, one that is both advocate and activist. I think that we should purposefully avoid being apolitical, and I don't mean that we should position ourselves as liberal or conservative, or exclude anyone that wants to participate, I'm all for being big tent. It just seems like an apolitical position is completely untenable for us, and we shouldn't be afraid of making the world more endurable in our own vision.

As basic principles, it seems that we should be in favor of facilitating better decision-making and organizing skills so that people can make better political decisions, and exposing corrupting influences of money, power, and talent share (revolving door phenomena). More-or-less, exposing the 'reason' behind positions held and votes made by representatives.

I think it would be a fruitful conversation to have, if we could discuss what we want watchdog to do, in just a few words. We are bound to have disagreements, but I think having a clear direction would allow us to better figure out if a specific source of data is a useful one, or even how to visualize a collection of data we have. Knowing the motivation is incredibly important.

Aaron originally described what we're going to be working on as Data/Action + Causes, and I think that's a pretty durable blueprint for what we should be working towards. I agree with him, that it's not enough to provide data that might be provoking, to not overwhelm people with, "well, bad news, your representatives aren't so great at representing your issues and interests and they're mostly working for these five industries," but also, "and, here's the thing: you can change that, right now." The ability for change through action is pretty important, and a lot of it is going to take a while to do, but we can start right now. I think it makes sense for us to imagine ourselves as we've been described, a "hub for politics," and maybe later that to "a starting point for political and social action" be it direct or WYR.

The data is something we've been working on almost exclusively. WYR works, and there's the ability to generate petitions and sign them, but those almost seem added on after the fact, right now. For example, Simon was summing up what we're doing right now, and he said, "Right now we're focused on making something compelling out of the data" and added on, "but we're also letting users write their representatives." There's really no connection between those two things right now, and there should be.

I think we should figure out how we want to build this up. We've discussed and have implemented a continuous release cycle, but I think along with that we need to really consider drafting a real examination of what we want to be working on for the next year or two, and hammering out a lot of the details. I think if we're at a point where as new data comes in, or better data, we can add functionality ad-hoc and through incremental improvements to one familiar interface, then we'd be doing a pretty good job. Instead of releasing completely new functions we should be releasing data layers, and allowing investigators, teachers, kids, anyone to be playing around with the data and making their own compelling narratives.

It's also not enough to have everyone thrown in on their own, with no way of reaching out or touching each other. I think the zip code is, usually, a pretty good way of establishing a community, often better than a congressional district, but there are a lot of competing methods of organization that can be discussed. At some local level, though, and maybe this could be the first implementation, users should be oriented with other users through a shared community space, be it the district page that they're taken to when typing in their address, or some other unit. If we're doing the data end correctly, then coming up with novel interfaces for a local view should be something that naturally comes next.

When we present information, there's kind of stale feel to it. Sure, it's fixed in time, maybe based on a census year, or a range of dates, but it doesn't have a feeling of presence or immediacy. I would want to be able to type in my zip code and immediately have my perspective of my local community changed, in such a way that I'm able to immediately start working toward improving that community, whether through direct action, petition representatives, or electing new representatives that might better represent my interests.

Recently I reached out to the American Cancer Society/NCI, explaining to them the sort of data that we have available, and asking about what they'd want to do with it, which essential data we're missing, how they'd ideally see it used to help people and bring attention to cancer hot spots, causes, etc. I think similar groups would love to interact with us and help shape the data we bring in and how we make it available. For each of these implementations, such as if we're working with the American Heart Assoc., it should be possible to secure funding through grants, so that we're given a grant to do work with the AHA.

That pretty much brings me to a big funding question, which is, how are we going to exist in the future? It seems intuitive, to me at least, that we seek operating funding, so that we're able to exist to implement ideas, sustain the site, promote ourselves, talk about the project, and seek outside support (more funding). Additionally, I would hope that we'd be able to get funding as necessary for projects or initiatives that come up, or a serious addition of features to the site. Purchasing our own hardware and leasing colocation services might help us too, especially if our feeds ever become popular enough that we're pushing a lot of data. This might be more expensive, too, if we need to hire someone as a server admin, so maybe we're best off how we are now, I don't really know our set up. The operating funding might come from Sunlight, a contract with the government to digitize or look after their data (not likely), a rich benefactor (someone's Uncle), or individual donations. Right now it looks like we're doing okay with Sunlight, but, again, I'm a bit removed from the financial reality, maybe we're just fine for the future.

We should focus on a good media story, too. A function that maps cancer data and environmental chemical exposure/spills would be one thing, but being able to link that to systematic negligence or legislation would be incredible. We should have projects that exist just for USA Today, because the attention they bring us will benefit more than just our project.

more to come, later

I still have a huge document full of ideas, suggestions, and plans, but I need to write them out in a better form. Simon, I think, really wants me to post this, so I'm going to post it incomplete and update it Friday evening.

So, Friday night/Saturday I'll update and add on to this, it'll probably triple in size. The most important thing that's lacking right now is the list of everything we're working on, everything we should be working on, and things that have become lost. I'm trying to write them out as actual projects, so that we can copy+paste many of the descriptions into emails that we can send out later.

the end

christopher

changed March 6, 2009 delete history edit