The infrastructure project

Calling all New York and New Jersey news organizations: Want to enlist your audiences in a networked reporting project that will have a huge impact on government and make a difference in all their lives — a project you couldn’t do without them?

Get your audience to report on the failures of the infrastructure around them.

Put up a Google map (with Platial on top) and town and neighborhood wikis and ask them to pinpoint every failure of infrastructure — or feared failure — they see: streets that flood every time it rains, bridges that look just too damned rusty, potholes, pipes that burst, streets that don’t get plowed, streetlights that don’t work, signs that are missing. . . . Ask them for dates and other specifics and for pictures and video. Urge them to blog their stories of frustration and bureaucracy.
Use your promotional power and influence to mobilize your public.

Then do what you do best: add journalism. Go verify what they say and tell the story of that street that closes every time it rains, of the people whose lives lose hours as a result, of the government bureaucrats who should be fixing it of the money spent on other things instead.

And because you have your audience contributing vast amounts of information you never could have gathered on your own, you can see patterns that also become stories: What towns and neighborhoods are crumbling most? Where is money being spent and wasted most? Who are the officials overseeing the worst declines? What are these failures costing the public (how many manhours were lost in yesterday’s traffic jams?)?

Then when you do what local news organizations have always done — bring pressure for change — you get to take credit for not only improving the quality of life and efficiency of government, you also get to brag about working collaboratively with the public you serve. You can boast that you are a pioneer in networked journalism. You’ll be not only useful but hip.

Just a suggestion.

  • A.J.

    A good idea. My only doubt is that news organizations have been pushing the public to give them news tips since time immemorial (i.e.: news tip hotlines and email addresses). I do see, of course, that the collaborative capabilities of Web 2.0 — including blogs, interactive maps and social networks — will let citizens participate in the newsgathering process more than ever, and on a different level. But at the end of the day, the result may be very similar to asking people to email, or something to that extent. In other words, this idea is definitely worth trying, but I wouldn’t expect any sweeping journalistic reforms to ensue.

  • When I walk around my neighborhood and notice something amiss – e.g. when the last power outage hit my office and I started walking towards town to find a cafe with wifi and power etc – I used twitter to note what was going on, e.g.

    this was some combination note to self, notes for a future blog post, communications with coworkers and friends, and coordination effort to make sure I ended up in the same place as someone else when I was done.

  • NLP

    This is a great idea.

    I think this principle could be applied to all areas of government. Ask the citizens where stuff doesn’t work: Which department looses your applications all the time? Who needs you to give them eight photos to get one application processed? Who takes forever to respond to your calls? Who has the longest waiting times? etc

    This would be a very powerful way to measure the effectiveness of many government departments. (This is really scary by the way)

    Maybe we could call that model “Citizen Networks” or something along these lines…

  • Fine idea, but be careful what you wish for.

    I suggest you also ask your readers, that along with reporting infrastructure problems, that they propose how much they are willing to have their taxes raised to support the costs of their suggested improvements/repair.

    See, your claim that our government has failed us is only half true. There is more than plenty of blame to share with the taxpaying public that is unwilling to fund infrastructure improvement.

  • Jeff, Per your posts below, when your army audience is done with that, they should stay in their posts and help us understand using multimedia why government sucks so badly at this, how their tax dollars actually get spent, and how it is tied to how politicians hold onto their power. Then we would have exactly the Press that the Founding Fathers had in mind in the first place. (Steve Boriss, The Future of News)

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  • AJ- I had your reservations at first as well as I read Jeff’s post. However, as oppossed to tips disappearing into a news org’s email account or voice mail, this online citizen reportage would be available for all to see and utlize.

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  • Harry

    “See, your claim that our government has failed us is only half true. There is more than plenty of blame to share with the taxpaying public that is unwilling to fund infrastructure improvement.”

    Rich, the problem isn’t that the public is unwilling to pay enough taxes to pay for infrastructure maintenance; it’s the screwed-up priorities of the governing class.

    For example, last week’s bridge collapse in Minneapolis forced a cancellation of a scheduled groundbreaking for a new stadium for the Minnesota Twins. The cost of the new stadium? $1.1 billion.

    That’s right; Minnesota’s governmental “leaders” managed to find $1.1 billion for a new baseball stadium but couldn’t find the money for bridge maintenance.

    What does that tell you about their judgment and priorities? More tax revenues will just give those fools more opportunities to piss it away on nonsense.

  • Harry…see my reponse two blogposts back at Jeff’s first post on infrastructure, re: governmental dysfunctionality.

    Jeff, I really like this idea. A LOT. Even if 90% or more of the public doesn’t respond, the remainder WILL, to varying degrees, and this has the potential of turning the entire populace into a superb watchdog…which is what it is supposed to do in the first place, in a democracy.

    Just be careful about going from reporter/commentator to advocate…people get snippy with advocates when things don’t go according to plan…

    And thanks for dealing with this…you might want to consider investing in a gameboy for those future traffic jams, until this problem gets worked out…

  • Harry-
    Please don’t parse my comment, as I did not absolve government leaders of responsibility. If the population cares enough (and they do care as they defeated at least two previous stadium funding attempts), then they will remove those leaders from office. All they have to is show up on election day. No need for a new kind of activism, all that is needed is for people to participate in the form of activism on which this country was founded.

  • Paul Brannan

    There’s a Beta version of this idea operating in the UK. Have a look at

    Put in BBC TV’s postcode – W12 7RJ – and you’ll get an idea of some of the problems that have been flagged.

    For news organisations most of the things reported wouldn’t merit a NIB but they’re hugely important for local communities and for engendering civic pride.

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