THE BLOG
10/22/2012 03:55 pm ET Updated Dec 22, 2012

Election 2012: Free the Files!

Grab your trench coat and sunglasses: You too, can be an investigative reporter.

With their canny mix of tech savvy and traditional investigative journalism, ProPublica has created a way to harness thousands of citizens journalists to reveal who is paying for which attack ads on TV and how much they are spending.

In these final weeks of the presidential race, the impact of so-called dark money on the election is enormous and growing and there's every reason to think that a barrage of new 501(c)(3)s will emerge in the final days and pay for even more anonymous attack ads.

ProPublica's "Free the Files" campaign enlists citizens to get on their site, and within a few seconds, convert TV station ad records (images of paper documents which can't be read by computers) into usable data files that can be scrubbed and analyzed.

National organizations like The Huffington Post, my organization TheCivicCommons.com and regional newspapers like the Akron Beacon Journal are partnering with ProPublica to promote this effort and encourage their readers to help free the files.

You can get on their site right now and in five minutes or so, free your first file. You might find it so satisfying that you'll want to keep going and liberate dozens of files. You can even select the state or region from which you want to liberate files.

Of course, ProPublica's "Free the Files" is only one of many efforts across the country to use citizen-powered wiki-communities to advance civic goals. The Sunlight Foundation has a similar program that focuses on smaller markets, called Political Ad Sleuth.

Other sites that seek to foster citizen power are abundant, like Change.org, the well-known petition site, or The Civic Commons, a social network for civic good, which includes action tools like voting and petitions. On a hyper local level, there are online organizations like SeeClickFix and Frontporchforum.com. The recent explosion of ways to organize citizen-based action will no doubt have growing impact on our political system in the future.