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.

Helping readers become watchdogs

Just as news organizations can harness the power of grassroots journalism to extend their newsroom’s reporting capabilities, interest groups, corporations and watchdog groups can use distributed reader-driven reporting networks to gather and publish news online, as well.

Ellen Miller is the executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington-based watchdog group that’s using grassroots reporting techniques to cover the U.S. Federal government. She spoke by phone with OJR about the foundation and the promise of citizen reporting.

OJR: Tell me about the Sunlight Foundation, and what you’re set up to do.

Miller: The Sunlight Foundation was created out of the desire to stimulate more investigative attention to what goes on in Congress, by both citizens, bloggers, and journalists. With the idea of making more resources more easily available. And stimulating a kind of environment where looking into what members of Congress are doing on a daily basis becomes sort of a norm. To that end, we’ve created a number of interactive projects for, particularly, citizens. One is a Congresspedia, where people are invited to contribute to a Web-based, wiki encyclopedia online. We’ve created online tutorials for people about the issue of money and politics. And we’re doing some distributed reporting, where we ask citizens to go out and report back to us what members are doing – for example, on earmarks. We’ve also given a number of grants, to organizations to digitize information, which should be digitized by members of Congress, but is not, lie personal financial disclosure information, information about lobbyists — what lobbyists file, who’s lobbying whom and how much they’re spending on it all. And so those are just a few projects.

We’re also creating a laboratory. We’re calling it Sunlight Labs. Which will be our attempt to stimulate the mashing of data and information so that with one click, you can do your research on a corporation or an individual or a labor union, or member of Congress. So, we’re very information-oriented. Going to age-old wisdom of Justice Brandeis, which is, sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants. In part, because a journalist has said to us – you know, they – members of Congress do what they do because they can get away with it.

OJR: How did the Foundation get put together? What are your major sources of funding?

Miller: We have one major source of funding at the moment. It comes from a fellow by the name of Mike Klein. He’s a long time Washington businessman and lawyer. And he and I met in September, and just found we had this sort of mutual interest. And we met with a lot of people on this topic of, how do you create more investigative attention in Congress? And we came up with a number of ideas, which we have rolled into the Sunlight Foundation. And he is providing the initial funding for it.

OJR: Tell me a little bit more about what you’re trying to accomplish with the idea of citizen reporting, having non-journalist readers out there going in and collecting information for you.

Miller: Well, we were intrigued by the world of citizen journalism, and the various experiments that have been going on in the last few years. And we think in some areas, the citizens know a heck of a lot more about what’s going on than we do here in Washington. For example, our first distributed reporting assignment, which is actually on the board, on our website right now, under the Assignment Desk feature – asks members of the public to go to their members websites, or read their franked mail, and tell us what they’re bragging about in terms of earmarks. We in Washington don’t see that kind of literature. I don’t think most journalists do, either, unless they actually live in the districts where this franked mail goes out. Another example is in the transportation appropriations bill, [where] there are 100 or so examples of lane-widening amendments, which are all sort of obtusely described, like the intersection of US-22 and Highway 15. And so we’re thinking about maybe asking citizens to go out to those intersections in their district. And tell us what’s going on, so we can have a better sense of why Congress is footing the bill to widen roads.

OJR: How are you going about recruiting these citizens to participate in these efforts?

Miller: It’s all part of the notion of trying to build a readership for the Sunlight Foundation. We will be linking to other bloggers who have bigger lists than ours, and we’ll be trying to build – you know, an interest in this kind of citizen journalism. Sort of really, literally, byte by byte. At the moment, we’d had some fledgling interest. But that’s because we have fairly a fledgling readership. But citizen journalism – and our mentor has been Dan Gillmor. Is a growing field. And we expect to draw a fair amount of attention to this, in fairly short order.

OJR: What were your models in setting this up?

Miller: Well, I think it’s fair to say that there were lots of models. There is no single organization that does what Sunlight does. We’re half-grantmaker, and half-programmatic. So, we’ve taken our lessons from a lot of people, really. I don’t know if they’re quite models. Number one, recognizing the incredible potential that the new technology provides to us, to digitize information. And so, the Center for Responsive Politics has really been the premiere group that has taken information and made it digitally available. And so, when we find a group like CRP, that’s already doing terrific stuff, we will fund them to take and create new data bases. So, that’s one model, if you will. The world of citizen journalism, we’ve been looking at what Dan Gilmore has done over at Bayosphere. We’re fascinated by the revolutionary and galvanizing power of the Internet. So, in a non-political way, we’re huge admirers of what Moveon has done to create a community of people who care about certain things. Although we are nonpolitical. We stress that. But it has given a way to engage citizens that never were previously possible. And so, that’s a very powerful model for us.

In terms of the blogging world, we’ve created three new blogs. Because the world needed new blogs. [Laughs.] But – you know, we’ve been looking at people like Josh Marshall, who does a terrific investigative effort over at Talking Point Memo. But also, his new TPM Muckraker add-on to that. That’s certainly been a model for our Under the Influence blog, which Bill Allison writes. We’re doing online tutorials, using some of the technology called Streamcasting. That is also a very exciting new development. So, lots of models to bring together – try to fill in missing pieces of information, try to create new information where none exists in digital form. And try to bring Congress – you know, into the new century.

OJR: Tell me a little bit about the online tutorials, and the screencasting.

Miller: Well, you can see it there on the left hand side of our home page. It’s a new technology called screencasting. The purpose of which is to educate the viewers about the influence and role of money in politics. Not just campaign contributions, but money and politics, through a tutorial. So, the first one was about prescription drug prices. The second one is about defense contracting. Pretty simple, pretty straightforward. Designed to be something that anybody could follow.

OJR: But it’s not just read-along text. There’s an audiovisual component to it.

Miller: Oh, no, no, no. It’s video and visual. So, you should check it out. It’s really very cool.

OJR: Let’s talk about the Sunlight Lab for a minute, and the concept of mashing up information. Walk me through that process, if you could.

Miller: Well, I’ll do it as best I can. As I have – my consultants have consultants on this. In fact, we’ve just hired a terrific guy to head up our pilot project. They’re disparate data sets. The campaign contributions is in one data set. Lobbyist records are in another data set. The government grants and contracts will be in another data set. And our thought was, if you could provide a sort of one-click access, so you could search by a member’s name, a corporation’s name, or a labor union’s name, and see all the channels for money and influence, then that would be a very powerful tool to understanding – you know, how things get done in Washington. And so, that is essentially the goal of it. And so, we’re gonna create sort of our own experiments this way. We’ve been having conversations with groups like the Center for Responsive Politics and others, about this. And so, we would like to try to create some experiments on our own, and nudge some of these discussions forward with other groups that we’ve been having.

OJR: How large of a staff do you have now, and do you anticipate putting together to support all of these Internet efforts?

Miller: We’re probably looking at a full-time staff of around ten. We’re five now, leaning heavily on consultants. Which I like to do, because I like bringing in people who have a particular expertise, and using them as we need to. And it also depends on how quickly we build out, and how responsive citizens are to the efforts of contributing to things.

We’re very open-source focused. We believe in creating stuff, and throwing it out there. And experimenting, and making sure that other people can use it, too.

OJR: What outcomes are you looking for that would mark the project as a success over the long term?

Miller: Ultimately we would like to see Congress put us out of business. That is to say, we would like Congress to be – you know, to enter the 21st century. And number one, file all of the current required reports and information online on a weekly basis, and make it available in searchable format on the Internet. So, that would be goal number one. And goal number two would be to add additional requirements that would give us more exposure to what they do on a daily basis. For example, putting their calendars online, listing every bill or amendment they introduce that might benefit someone who had contributed to their political campaign, filing a report like that every time – you know, they introduce something that would have an impact on someone who had contributed to them, filing reports on every meeting they have with a lobbyist, and what they were meeting about. So, information – you know, in an Internet-friendly, searchable fashion, is really the goal. And then that would put lots of groups out of business, because they wouldn’t have to spend a lot of time creating databases, because Congress would be doing it itself. Congress is operating in the last century. And the Internet age is already 10 years old. It’s hiding information, in some cases, in plain daylight. But it still remains almost as hidden as if it hadn’t been disclosed at all.

OJR: So much of what is happening in the blogosphere right now is partisan-driven. Do you think that a nonpartisan citizen journalism effort is sustainable over the long haul, or is there a danger that people are only really interested in digging up dirt on the other guys? How do you manage that issue?

Miller: Yeah. I think it is sustainable. I mean, I think that most people don’t think of themselves as Republicans and Democrats, when it comes to viewing corruption, quote-unquote, in Congress. Ethics and lobbying scandals. And I think citizens will participate in a nonpartisan fashion. On Congresspedia, we have an editor. And he is simply not having that much trouble keeping partisan stuff off the website. People are responding in a very positive, and professional, and non-partisan way.