Citizens and organizations seeking information about the relationships between officials, corporations and policy makers can tap into a myriad of resources. Here is a description of ten of the most helpful watchdog projects. -DB
November 3, 2009
By Katie Donnelly
With the 2010 U.S. elections coming into view, many people are looking for more information about the people running for office — and the individuals and organizations funding these candidates.
Fortunately, there are dozens of initiatives that mine and share the data that influence policy and policy-makers. Many are funded by The Sunlight Foundation, which aims to use “the revolutionary power of the Internet to make information about Congress and the federal government more meaningfully accessible to citizens.”
Below are 10 innovative government transparency projects that employ powerful online databases to make political data accessible (and, in many cases, fun as well). They serve as examples of Public Media 2.0 by providing much-needed intelligence about the relationships between officials, corporations, and policy-makers.
Billed as “The Good Government Site with Teeth,” Watchdog is a non-profit, foundation-funded project that uses open source software to aggregate government data — including census information, campaign disclosures, and voting records — in a single location. In addition to allowing users to search for data by location or officials’ names, Watchdog also encourages people to take direct action by contacting their government representatives, and signing and creating online petitions.
A project from the Center for Media and Democracy, SourceWatch is a wiki-style “directory of the people, organizations and issues shaping the public agenda,” including public relations firms, think tanks, activist groups, industry-backed “experts,” and government agencies. According to the website, “the goal of SourceWatch is to create the largest and most up-to-date guide in history, both in terms of breadth and depth.” As of October 24, the site had 47,321 articles. Interestingly, SourceWatch does not adhere to a “neutral point of view” policy (like Wikipedia), although it does provide guidelines for contributors, and a paid staff of editors oversees the content.
3. Follow the Money
Follow the Money, an initiative from the National Institute on Money in State Politics, is an excellent resource for political funding information at the state level. The site includes comprehensive data, maps, charts, and graphs about lobbyists and government spending. Some of their creative tools include data visualizations such as Pulse, which demonstrates the “correlative relationship between money, incumbency, and winning”; c50, which compares the competitiveness of elections in all 50 states; and Contributions Timeline, which explores campaign contributions over specific periods of time. The site includes plenty of other innovative tools, as well as APIs and widgets.
4. Little Sis
Public Accountability Initiative’sLittle Sis is the antidote to Big Brother. It’s an “involuntary Facebook” for government officials. This user-edited, social networking database profiles close to 30,000 current and former government officials, lobbyists and major corporate executives. It also includes close to 12,000 organizations, including lobbying firms and Fortune 1000 companies. The site provides data about these individuals and organizations, but its primary focus is on exposing the relationships between them (13,8871 relationships are currently highlighted). Little Sis has developed some interesting data visualizations, including this one(see a portion of that above). They are currently working on APIs and becoming an open-source project.
An initiative from the Sunlight Foundation and the Participatory Politics Foundation, OpenCongress uses open source tools to track bills, representatives, funding, and votes. There are plenty of interactive and social networking features on the site. Users are encouraged to discuss, evaluate and vote on bills, as well as provide approval ratings for members of Congress. Registered users can create their own “My OpenCongress” customized portal to track their personal Congressional interests. OpenCongress also features a host of innovative tools, including state and district portals, a head-to-head voting comparison tool, various widgets, and Battle Royale, an aggregated list of the most popular happenings in My OpenCongress.
OpenSecrets is a large-scale database project from the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-partisan, non-profit organization that has analyzed money in American politics for over 25 years. The site includes national, state and local political funding information, and provides news and analysis in the form of reports and blogs. The My OpenSecrets tool allows regular users to keep track of their watchdogging. OpenSecrets also offers resources for developers, and widgets that track campaign spending and industry contributions.
GovTrack.us is an open source database tool created by Civic Impulse, LLC. It tracks members of Congress, bills, voting records and Congressional committees. Users can employ “trackers” — such as bill trackers, people trackers, subject trackers, and committee trackers — to follow specific happenings, as well as create personalized “tracked events” pages. It offerswidgets and APIs. GovTrack.us was launched in 2004, two years before the Sunlight Foundation formed. It was a source of inspiration for the current government transparency database movement.
MAPLight is a database project that “illuminates the connection between campaign donations and legislative votes in unprecedented ways.” Users can search for legislators, interest groups, and bills across the United States. (Comprehensive state and local information is available for California and Los Angeles.) Money-related widgets are available, as is a Bill Positions API, which relies on combined data from OpenSecrets, Follow the Money, GovTrack.us and OpenCongress.
GovernmentDocs.org is a collaborative project from Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Project on Government Oversight, Public Citizen, the Sunlight Foundation, American Rights at Work and the ALCU. The site is a vast database of government documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests. Registered users are invited to review and comment on the documents. GovernmentDocs.org is information-heavy (some of the government files are hundreds of pages long) and its multimedia elements are weak (the blog on the site hasn’t been updated in a very long time). But it offers an invaluable resource by publishing, indexing, and offering public review of formerly secret government data.
10. The Foreign Lobbying Influence Tracker
Moving beyond the United States, the Foreign Lobbyist Influence Tracker from ProPublica and the Sunlight Foundation monitors foreign interests seeking to influence U.S. government policies. Using information from the Foreign Agents Registration Act, the project has digitized and organized foreign lobbyist information by legislator, country, lobbying firm, client and issue. The site is mostly data at this point in that it lacks some of the more fun and engaging user features that many other government transparency projects employ. But it is full of valuable information that’s impossible to find anywhere else.
The above list is by no means exhaustive. For example, Project Vote Smart, is a comprehensive resource that deserves an entire post of its own. The open government movement is growing stronger with each passing election, and that means more of these valuable watchdog initiatives are being launched all the time.
Katie Donnelly is a research fellow at the Center for Social Media at American University where she blogs about the future of public media.