The task was steep. Nearly six weeks ago, ProPublica issued a call for volunteers willing to help us extract key data locked inside thousands of political ad contracts filed at television stations in top 50 markets.
The files contain details about political ad purchases in swing markets that were unavailable before the Federal Communications Commission ordered the stations to begin posting the documents online. But the data was unstructured and logged in PDF files of varying formats and quality. Sometimes it was filed sideways or upside down.
Adding to the challenge, for every document reviewed, more arrived daily as the election wore on and new ads were purchased.
By the end of Election Day, our crowd managed to log more than $650 million in ad buys in swing markets — a number that continues to grow. All told, 880 people helped review at least one file. But 10 people led the pack, collectively reviewing nearly 30,000 documents (half of all those reviewed) and playing a critical role in making Free the Files the most successful crowdsourcing effort ProPublica has ever attempted.
We asked our top volunteers to tell us why they offered so much of their time. Their answers are heartening and worth celebrating as we offer our thanks to everyone who has helped make Free the Files a success. All of you take a bow.
And while we set a record with our Election Day Challenge (freeing nearly 1,000 files, the most freed in a single day since we started) we have thousands more to go. The story of campaign spending in the 2012 election is far from over.
Free the Files Top 10 Volunteers
No. 1 Kory Bajus, Sheboygan, Wis.
1,1846 files reviewed, 6,341 files freed
On joining Free the Files: Living in Wisconsin during the various recall efforts, I've been inundated with political ads. I started to wonder how much this was costing the campaigns and when I saw Free the Files, I figured this would be one way to find out.
The takeaway: The amount of money spent on ads is insane. Some ad buys could allow cities to hire two or three or more teachers! And if the majority of people felt the way I did towards political ads -- that I wanted to throw my TV out the window if one more played -- it seems like a gigantic waste of money. So much better things could come out of it that concretely affect people's lives.
No. 2 Katie Foran-McHale, Milwaukee, Wis.
6,075 files reviewed, 3,235 files freed
Election Day Challenge Winner, 916 files reviewed
On joining Free the Files: I recently graduated from the University of Wisconsin's journalism school and had a lot of spare time while job hunting. I found out about Free the Files through a former work colleague and thought it was a great way to integrate my education with my passion to contribute to uncovering the truth behind some capacity of election spending.
The takeaway: When I first started, I was surprised at the number of ads/contributions for Obama. And at the very beginning, I was taken aback by ad buys in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
No. 3 Sarita Nemerow Eisenstark, Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y.
3,629 files reviewed, 1,441 files freed
On joining Free the Files: I'd like more transparency in politics and in government. I love crowdsourcing. I'm happy to work on a worthwhile project when and where I like, at whatever speed I want -- and adding to a team effort with like-minded volunteers.
The takeaway: Amazed at the volume of money flowing. To see just a $$ figure on a chart or in an article doesn't have the impact of turning page after page after page, many with hundreds of thousand of dollars flying out. Wondering if they could/should standardize the contract forms, the nomenclature, etc. The dollars and cents are all 100 percent precise, but the naming conventions, titles, etc. are pretty loosey-goosey.
No. 4 Lily Korte, Canton, Ohio
3,269 files reviewed, 1,073 files freed
On joining Free the Files: My mom works in radio and was always talking about ad buys and the like, and I worked for a public opinion polling company for a while, so I just wanted to get a closer look at the finer details of campaign spending to see where exactly all this money was going.
The takeaway: There is a ton of money involved, and post-election the status quo seems to have actually shifted very little, so there really is no reason for the massive amounts of advertising spending to continue. You can pump hundreds of millions of dollars into saturating the airwaves with messages, but all it accomplishes is angering and annoying people.
No. 5 Harry Stobaugh, 1,603 files reviewed, 702 files freed
We haven't heard back from Harry, yet.
No. 6 Joel Sage, Greenbelt, Md.
1,512 files reviewed, 864 files freed
On joining Free the Files: My wife and I had our first child in June, and I've been staying home with him full-time these first few months. While this has been incredibly rewarding, I was frustrated that I could not be more involved in this year's election -- at least I was before Free the Files started up. It was the perfect way to contribute my free minutes between feedings and diaper changes to a cause I believe in.
The takeaway: I've read extensively about campaign finance over the past few years (including Lawrence Lessig's ”Republic, Lost”), but there's nothing like going through actual records, one at a time. Billions of dollars is not particularly comprehensible, but seeing $100,000 order after $100,000 order, station after station, city after city, crystallizes the absurdity and outrage of campaign finance. Similarly, seeing the same political consultancies again and again, race after race, highlights just how much the current system enriches a very small group of well-connected insiders. It was very eye-opening, even for someone who "knew.”
No. 7 JD Mathews, Albuquerque, N.M.
1,400 files reviewed, 888 files freed
On joining Free the Files: I'm usually working on political campaigns but this year I was sick of partisan politics so I decided to forgo working on any campaigns this cycle. Still being a political junkie I needed some way to get my fix. I found the Free the Files opportunity and thought it was perfect. Government transparency is one of my top issues and what could be more perfect than making the outrageous amounts of money being spent on campaigns more open to the public. When I started Free the Files, I never planned on doing over 1,000 files but it was important so I kept going.
The takeaway: Free the Files has solidified my belief that money needs to be limited and more transparent in campaigns; public financing would help alleviate the need for so much fundraising. Also, there needs to be a nationwide standard for TV station reporting forms. There was so much unnecessary confusion because of some of the forms used that were unclear: different names for the contract number, different names for campaigns and candidates, awful scan quality. The FCC needs to go further than what they required this year.
No. 8 Tonya Ricucci, Maryland
1,392 files reviewed, 614 files freed
No. 9 Will Ross, Omaha, Neb.
1,135 files reviewed, 717 files freed
On joining Free the Files: I don't like secrets.
The takeaway: American Crossroads wasted a buttload of money.
No. 10 Karen Yang, Englewood, N.J.
877 files reviewed, 610 files freed
On joining Free the Files: I'm all for transparency in politics -- especially when it comes to political funding.
The takeaway: It's all much worse than I thought!!