Sunlight Foundation offers reporting tools to cover U.S. politics online

The Sunlight Foundation ought to be in the bookmarks list of any journalist covering U.S. national politics. OJR talked with Sunlight’s Ellen Miller two years ago about the organization’s efforts to enlist readers to help keep a watchful eye on Congress. Last week at the NewsTools 2008 conference in Sunnyvale, Calif. Bill Allison, senior fellow at the foundation’s Sunlight Labs, described some of the new online reporting tools on which the foundation is working.

Sunlight Labs has been digitizing a variety of federal disclosure data and making that available online via application programming interfaces [APIs]. Current projects include a widget that pop-ups a hyperlinked profile of a member of Congress when someone mouses over his or her name on your webpage and a Google Map mash-up pinpointing the geographic location of almost all earmarks from last year’s Labor, Health and Human Services appropriations bill.

But it was the Labs’ newest project that Allison demonstrated in an early-morning break-out session at the conference. “Influence Explorer,” still under development and not yet released to the public, will allow readers “one-click disclosure” of a lawmaker’s earmarks, contributions, expenses and trips.

All the data that Influence Explorer will access is available now to the public, through a variety of services, including many of those listed on the foundation’s Insanely Useful Web Sites page. But tracking a lawmaker’s disclosures through multiple sites and databases can consume hours. What Sunlight Labs wants to do, Allison said, is to consolidate search requests and return multiple results from a single click.

“Why should you have to go to 15 different places to see what your congressperson is doing,” Allison asked.

Allison demonstrated how Influence Explorer’s “data chewer” could help a reporter use a press release to get useful background about a Congressional earmark, for example.

[A lesson in Government 101, for those not familiar with the term: An “earmark” is money that Congress assigns to a specific projects, outside the executive branch departments’ normal allocation procedures. It’s how members of Congress funnel money to their districts. Here is the Office of Management and Budget’s definition.]

Allison pasted a snippet of text from a press release about a Congressional appropriation for a new project. Influence Explorer used text analysis of the snippet to find common phrases and names with other releases and entries in its associated databases. It then returned a wealth of context for a journalist reporting the story.

Other earmarks from the same representative. Top contributors to the representative. Campaign contributions from employees of the company receiving the earmark. Expenses filed. Trips taken.

All the juicy details that helped take a ho-hum story about a grant and turn it into a far more interesting tale about a firm that suddenly started giving thousands of dollars to a member of Congress, then received millions on federal funding soon after.

Allison said that the core technology behind Influence Explorer is not new, and that corporate lawyers have been using “data chewers” like this to perform textual analysis to cross-reference documents for some time. Putting this technology in journalists’, and the public’s, hands would help level the field, Allison said.

The downside? It ain’t ready yet. Allison wouldn’t give an ETA for the project’s public release. Still, the foundation does have many other tools available. Allison invited conference attendees to work with the Sunlight Foundation to find access to data and data analysis tools that could help improve and inform their coverage of Washington politics. Allison and others at the foundation can be contacted through the foundation’s website, at

For notes from other sessions at NewsTools 2008, please visit the NewsTools website.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at