DorobekInsider.com: The National Dialogue on transparency and Recovery.gov — an update after two days

Wednesday - 4/29/2009, 5:21pm EDT

We are two days into Recovery.gov’s week-long National Dialogue on stimulus and transparency… and so far, it seems that they are getting some good information.

Just a reminder for those who haven’t been following the National Dialogue, the Obama administration is essentially asking for your help on how to build transparency into the stimulus package. This stuff is difficult — making the transparency of recovery.gov happen — but it seems there are some real opportunities coming out of this. [Earlier, on Federal News Radio 1500 AM's Daily Debrief with Chris Dorobek and Amy Morris, we spoke to Lena Trudeau of the National Academy of Public Administration about the National Dialogue. Hear that conversation here.]

More on Thursday’s Daily Debrief, but… I got some insights how things are going two days into the National Dialogue…

Some stats:

As of 10am this morning, 676 registered users, 205 ideas, 470 comments, over 700 votes on the ideas and just shy of 10,000 unique visitors.

I got a few mid-dialogue questions answered on how things are going so far:

How are things going?
The Dialogue is going very well. We’re very pleased with both the pace of participation and its quality, and it really seems as though this will provide some very good input for the Recovery Board on how to set up Recovery.gov.

It’s also important to say that the dialogue is being conducted in an incredibly civil way. People seem impressed that the Recovery Board chose to reach out to a broader audience at the outset of theirdecision making process rather than after it’s completed, and are taking that opportunity for input seriously. Even the criticisms we’ve had of the site itself—and in such an IT-focused audience, those are inevitable—are respectful and really provide us with some constructive criticism for how to do this even better next time around.

What are you seeing so far?… traffic… comments…
We’re really pleased with traffic so far. The overall number of visits to the site has held relatively steady, which is very noteworthy. We are also thrilled with the volume of activity. The site itself has 676 registered users, but together those people have generated over 1.5 million requests to our server. At peak times, we are getting about 25 requests per second, which is about a quarter of the number that the entire Google Apps can take before it crashes. Everyone involved with monitoring the site has said it’s rare to see a site that is this “sticky” — to attract such a proportion of browsers into actually signing up and taking advantage of all the interaction opportunities that are offered.

The comments themselves have been very high caliber. The Academy is not able to judge what the best or most useful comments are, that is up to the Recovery Board, but we have had some that illustrate how highly people value the site:

“As a work in progress I think you must agree this is an extraordinary step, which lacks precedence.”

“[Participation] involves a commitment to allowing public contributions to the dialogue. It’s the holy grail of online democracy, and seems to be one of the driving motivations of this “National Dialogue” site.”

“Traditionally the US Gov has only really been a successful early IT adopter via NSA or NASA, and actions such as this National Dialogue give me hope that may change.”

“This is the ultimate David vs. Goliath thing!” (Comment received via e-mail from Dialogue participant.)

It’s also been interesting to watch the tag cloud on the site grow and evolve as people raise new topics and make new connections between ideas. One thing we do that a lot of other similar sites don’t is that anyone can tag anyoneelse’s idea. The idea behind this is that everyone can make connections that might not have been obvious to the original idea submitter. We think that is working so that at the end of the process, the Recovery Board will have not just a bunch of great ideas, but also the community’s sense on which are the best, which are the most controversial, and what overarching “buckets” they fall into.

I heard that the servers actually got overloaded… how did you deal with that?
We did experience some technical difficulties Monday morning that were caused by an overwhelming amount of participation on the site. We were ready for a massive number of people to use the site–it is hosted in a cloud, which is highly elastic and scalable — but what we didn’t anticipate is how much activity each user would generate by immediately becoming engaged in submitting, rating, tagging, and discussing the ideas. That’s what sort of caused us to overheat. Some users experienced technical difficulties. At one point, we were just adding servers furiously, trying to keep pace with the activity! As of now, we’ve expanded to 12 servers to catch all the traffic, and have also made changes to the database structure and made the caching more aggressive to provide a better user experience and access times for all.