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Got questions? Below are answers to questions I’m frequently asked by members of our ProPublica Reporting Network who are participating in our first initiative: Adopt a Stimulus Project. Don’t find what you need? Email me at Amanda AT propublica.org. 

Question: I want to be part of the Reporting Network. What can I do? How can I be of help?
Right now our focus is on the stimulus. Our first initiative is Adopt a Stimulus Project, which asks people to monitor a local road or bridge construction project funded by the stimulus. We’re asking you to do two things: first, to help us find out specific information about your project and second, to pass on any developments you think should be monitored. What exactly are we talking about? Well, for starters you would identify the project’s start date and call your state Department of Transportation (DOT) to find out exactly what the project entails. Later you’ll note the names of companies working on the project and, if possible, inquire about the subcontractors hired by those companies.

Question: I’m not able to commit to monitoring a project. What else can I do?
Join our e-mail list here, and we’ll notify you of other reporting opportunities. You can always pass on tips to us by e-mailing suggestions@propublica.org.

Question: How do I identify myself when I call the DOT or a company?
Just say that you’re a volunteer reporter for ProPublica’s Reporting Network, and that we’ve asked you to gather some information about a local stimulus project. ProPublica is a nonprofit, investigative newsroom located in Manhattan. Here’s our about page.

Question: When I talk to someone at the DOT, what information should I write down?
Whenever you talk to somebody, try to record basic information: their name, their position, and a way to contact them again, like a direct phone number or e-mail address. If they give you numbers, it’s important to write those numbers down.

Question: What if someone at the DOT doesn’t know the start date for my project or what it entails?
Don’t be discouraged. Explain what information you’re looking for, and ask who you should talk to. If the person doesn’t know who to direct you to, ask to speak with his director or supervisor. Be polite but persistent. Once he sees that you won’t easily be deterred, he’ll probably realize that it’s easier to help you than to turn you away.

Question: How do I find out how many jobs were created by a particular project?
On this question, I would check first with the state DOT. Some have started to list job numbers on their lists of contracts awarded. State DOTs have to begin reporting job numbers to the federal government starting October 1.

Question: The state DOT does not recognize the project ID number assigned by the federal DOT that you display on your Adopt a Stimulus Project page.

Take a look at the state DOT Web site and see if you can find a project that seems to match. It will be easier for them to answer questions if they have a potential match. If that doesn’t work, be sure to have on-hand the details we sent you about your project—county, project description, cost, etc. Read them the description of the project we e-mailed you. (You can look it up here.) The cost figure assigned to your project on our Adopt a Stimulus Project page is the amount of money the federal government has disbursed to your state DOT for the project, and it should help them recognize the project you’re asking about.

If the state DOT still doesn’t recognize the project, download the list of proposed ARRA (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) projects on your state DOT Web site. Scan the list to see if a project there roughly matches the description you have on hand, and then ask the state DOT for details. Still don’t know? Contact Amanda at (917) 512-0219 or by e-mail at Amanda@propublica.org.

Question: A project won’t start construction until September. What can I do until then to monitor it?
If the contract has already been awarded, there are important questions you can ask. Which company won the contract? Has that company done similar work before? For the government? Do the winning contractors have any connection to or relationship with an official that might have influenced the bidding process? We put together a primer on how to do a background check on a company – check it out here.

Question: A project is mid-construction. What do you want me to look for on scene?
In addition to asking the questions above, you can also try to find out the following information: Is the project on schedule? Is it on budget? How many people are being employed on the project?

Question: A project near me is complete. What should I try to learn about it?
Find out how the project went. Was it completed on time? Did it cost more than it was supposed to? How many people were hired for the job and for how long? Did a government agency need to evaluate the quality of the work, and if so, did the work meet all the necessary requirements?

Question: There’s construction happening down the street and I heard that it’s funded by the stimulus. But when I go to our state DOT site I can’t seem to find a project description that matches it.
Some construction projects funded by the stimulus are multifaceted. For example, the project could include repaving, repainting, putting in a new chip seal, replacing bearings, and more. The easiest way to identify your project is by location. Just look for a project description with the road name or address. Then call your state DOT and find out what construction at the site entails.

Question: Can I take pictures of roads and bridges? If I’m asked to explain what I’m doing, what should I say?
You can usually take photos on or of public property, unless notice to the contrary has been posted. If somebody asks what you’re doing, you should tell them why you’re taking the photo and for whom.

Question: What rights do I have over the information I find and the pictures I take?
You retain ownership over the information you find and the photographs that you take. Everything published on ProPublica is licensed through Creative Commons. That means that anyone or any publication can reprint it as long as they properly credit the piece. When you contribute information to us you are putting your work squarely in the public domain.

Question: What else should I look for?
Based on what you’ve learned, here are some questions to ask: Is taxpayers’ money being spent in a proper way? Was the bidding process fair? Is the contractor doing a good job? Is waste being disposed of properly? Was the project awarded to a contractor who has close connections with local or state government officials? You should keep your eyes open for whatever seems to deserve your attention.

Question: How do I report information to ProPublica?
Just fill out this form or send an email to Amanda@propublica.org. Put your photos up on your blog or use a public photo service like Flickr, and then send Amanda the url. Or send them to us directly at amanda@propublica.org.

Question: How can I meet other local volunteers for ProPublica’s Reporting Network?
We’re introducing tools to help you collaborate and connect with other members. Until we do that, the best thing is to start your own stimulus watchdog group! All it usually takes to get going is a flyer posted at the grocery store, an e-mail sent out to friends and acquaintances, a note up on Facebook or, if you’re interested in leading the group, starting a local MeetUp.

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:

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