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A Brief History of the Sunlight Foundation

In late 2005, two different forces were at work throughout America. The first was the explosion of social media. Increasing numbers of people were going online, not only to get and share personal information, but to connect for civic and political purposes. As people embraced new media tools and Web sites, they became accustomed to having a readily available stream of information at their fingertips. A new media ecosystem, powered by the contributions of millions of active participants (called the "networked public sphere") emerged alongside the older, more top-down and less participatory traditional media system.

Meanwhile, trust in government was falling to another all time low. Multiple corruption scandals engulfed Washington. Super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff was pursued for putting top congressional leaders in his pocket and fleecing Indian tribes. Congressman Duke Cunningham was found accepting outlandish bribes in exchange for earmarks. One of the most ethically-challenged, and powerful members of Congress -- then Majority Leader Tom DeLay -- chose to leave office while facing rising legal problems. Amid the growing dissatisfaction with government and mindful of the changes underway in the information economy, longtime Washingtonians Michael Klein and Ellen Miller met to discuss ways to push for a more open and accountable government. Their vision: To fundamentally expand public access to vital government information for journalists and citizens alike, and to empower them with the tools to engage in online collaboration and dialog with their public officials.

Klein was a D.C. businessman and lawyer with a strong interest in politics. Miller was a long-time public interest advocate and nonprofit entrepreneur, having founded both the Center for Responsive Politics and Public Campaign. They invited two colleagues, Micah Sifry and Andrew Rasiej, co-founders of the Personal Democracy Forum, the country's leading conference on how technology is changing politics, to advise them. Their discussions led to the following decision: To create a foundation dedicated to using the revolutionary power of the Internet to make information about government more meaningful accessible to citizens.

In April 2006, the Sunlight Foundation formally opened its doors. Unlike other nonprofit institutions based in Washington, DC, Sunlight sought, much like a tech start-up, to take an experimental approach to achieving its goals of making government data more available and accessible. Rather than focusing exclusively on policy work aimed at Washington insiders or grassroots engagement efforts aimed at ordinary Americans, Sunlight focused on three key priorities: digitizing data, building tools and the sites for easy access to it, and developing communities to support and help carry on its work.

Sunlight's main policy priority is to establish within government an a priori assumption that all public information should be made available online, in as close to real-time as possible. In just three years, government has begun to move in this direction. The 2007 Honest Leadership and Open Government Act (HLOGA) contained recommendations by Sunlight that included the online posting of paid private travel disclosures and personal financial disclosures as well as the requirement that committee meetings be made available online in video, audio or written format. Soon after the passage of HLOGA, Sunlight announced the launch of the Open House Project, a collaborative cross-partisan effort (that had the public blessing of both House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Minority Leader John Boehner) to identify concrete reforms the House of Representatives could make in its use of information and the Internet.

Sunlight's policy work has helped push many changes to fruition including updating Franking rules to allow lawmakers to use social media sites like Twitter and YouTube, getting the House and the Senate to post office expenditure reports online and roll call votes posted in .XML format. Our work has also influenced executive branch transparency efforts, including the creation of a Chief Technology Officer, the establishment of Data.gov and Recovery.gov and the Open Government Directive. Much work remains to be done, and Sunlight's current priorities include electronic filing for Senate campaign finance reports; advancement of a 72-hour "read the bill" rule mandating that all legislation be posted online three days before consideration; and ultimately the enactment of an omnibus Transparency in Government Act that would make sweeping improvements in how Washington shares information with the public.

The creation of new databases, tools and Web sites is another priority of the Foundation. Early on, Sunlight decided to create an internal development lab staffed by top coders and designers skilled at working with the latest information technologies. Through the work of this Sunlight Labs team, terabytes of data have been digitized, and major new databases and tools have been created to share vital political information with the public. The Web sites CapitolWords.org, LOUISdb.org, EarmarkWatch.org, PoliticalPartyTime.org, Congrelate.org and PublicMarkup.org are all exemplary examples of open, accessible political information tools created and supported by Sunlight.

Sunlight has also funded the creation and maintenance of various Web tools and projects that create transparency and encourage citizen engagement. In this category, its flagship project is OpenCongress.org, a user-friendly hub for comprehensive information about bills, members and votes created in partnership with the Participatory Politics Foundation. OpenCongress.org is a one-of-a-kind site that attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors a month; many come to simply look up a specific piece of information, but tens of thousands have also created ongoing accounts on the site. These users track subjects they are interested in, comment on legislation, collaborate on reporting on current topics using wiki tools, and connect to like-minded users. Sunlight's funding has also helped MAPLight.org, which shows relationships between money and votes, focus on Congress; enabled OMB Watch to create FedSpending.org, the country's first searchable database of all government grants and contracts. We also enabled the Center for Responsive Politics and the National Institute for Money in State Politics to place their vast data sets containing tens of millions of records covering decades of campaign activity at the federal and state level into our "Data Commons" project at TransparencyData.com and InfluenceExplorer.com.

Perhaps most importantly, at our core, Sunlight recognizes that no number of staff at Sunlight or organizations we fund will be able to accomplish the task of making government transparent and accountable alone. Consequently, Sunlight seeks, at every opportunity, to engage concerned citizens in the work of making Washington more transparent, accessible and accountable.

Our Sunlight Labs now maintains a growing list of more than 2,000 software developers and designers who volunteer time and expertise toward building a growing cyber-infrastructure in support of nationwide transparency. The Open House Project listserv has more than 750 participants who are active at all levels of opening up the data running through government with new or revised policy. And, projects like our Transparency Corps, where any citizen - regardless of their technical or political knowledge - can help with modest, repetitive tasks that produce valuable new databases or resources, are gaining more participants every day.

In 2010, Sunlight launched a campaign to engage citizens nationwide in not only using new online tools to keep tabs on government and tell the stories of what's happening on Capitol Hill, but also to advocate that government information at all levels be available online and in real-time.

Sunlight is funded by an array of foundations and individuals, the largest of whom are Omidyar Network and our co-founder, Michael Klein. Omidyar Network doubled its commitment to us in the last year. Sunlight is also support by the Open Society Institute, The Pew Charitable Trusts, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Rockefeller Family Fund and many individual donors.

The future holds much more for the Sunlight Foundation as the government continues to embrace transparency at a rapid pace. We hope you'll join us.