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ProPublica Reporting Network: Where We're At

Amanda Michel In a Q&A over at Poynter I discuss some of what we've done so far with our citizen journalism effort -- the ProPublica Reporting Network -- our overall strategy, lessons learned, membership demographics, next steps, and more. Instead of rewriting the Poynter piece I'll just excerpt a section that's most relevant to the work we're doing now.

Question from Poynter: Your focus right now is the massive federal stimulus package. Tell me how you are using your citizen journalists to report on the stimulus.

Amanda: We started off simply with a project called "Adopt a Stimulus Project." We're coordinating this project with public radio station WNYC and "The Takeaway," its morning news show. Sure, it sounds "warm and cuddly" -- as Sunlight Foundation Executive Director Ellen Miller jokingly tweeted -- but that's really not the case. We are asking people to monitor a local bridge or road reconstruction effort funded by the stimulus. Volunteers file on-the-scene reports. They're charged with identifying subcontractors and helping us perform background checks on companies receiving stimulus contracts. This is slow going, as many construction projects have not yet started.

The Adopt a Stimulus Project is our gateway initiative. Several dozen people are highly dedicated to the project, and together we've conducted a handful of "special assignments" over the last few weeks. We have not found a story per se, but together we've learned a lot about the states' varying strategies and successfully tested several operating assumptions about the stimulus.

For example, it's been widely reported that bids for construction projects funded by the stimulus have come in below estimates, sometimes by a margin of 40 percent. This has given Vice President Joe Biden grounds for telling reporters that the government will finance more construction projects than expected.

We wanted to know if we could trust government estimates. From our volunteers we quickly learned that states were dusting off projects they'd shelved a few years back -- projects they had spec'd out in, say, 2006, but planned to complete in 2012. We wanted to make sure project estimates had been re-evaluated in the last few months before projects were put out to bid.

We worked with our small team to call almost all 50 state departments of transportation, specifically asking whether estimates for their individual projects had been recently recalibrated. (The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act requires them to do this.) Almost all states checked out. You'll be hearing about the lone state that didn't very shortly.

States are required to obligate 50 percent of their funding for transportation projects by June 30. Once they do we are going to shift gears. I can't say more about that now, but we'll shift away from partnering people up with individual projects to investigating core themes.

For more details - including what's coming next, go straight to the Poynter Q&A.

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