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It Was A Very Good Year

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Sunlight hasn’t been around nearly as long as that song -- it was first recorded in 1961 and we opened our doors in May of 2006 -- but for us 2009 was a very good year. We have you, an amazing staff and boards, and our generous investors to thank for that. Hardly a day went by when a new idea wasn’t hatched, tested or dumped, when a blog item wasn’t posted, when an idea for how to visualize data wasn’t tossed around. The best ideas survived and thrived in the creative, collaborative (and yes, sometimes chaotic) culture Sunlight has nurtured for the past 3 and a half years. We are excited about how far we have come and that we are poised for even bigger strides in the next decade.

A few highlights from this year from my point of view.

OpenCongress.org -- our joint project with the Participatory Politics Foundation --launched its most comprehensive site redesign mid-year, improving usability of its tools and clarity of data presentation. In addition, it integrated new useful sources of data and feature sets to make it even easier for individuals and organizations to track and share the best info about their interests  and, as result of the redesign and new features, and hot issues like health care and financial industry reform, OpenCongress has experienced its most-ever sustained traffic levels this year. In fact, in August 2009, shortly after the launch of the redesign, it appeared that OpenCongress became the most-visited government engagement Web site in the U.S., and perhaps in the world. And wait til next year -- if you think OpenCongress is a useful site, imagine the same kind of web-based resources rolled out for your state in 2010 based on state legislative data.

Apps for America Contests. Sunlight held two very successful contests this year resulting in the creation of 100 new apps based on government data. (Yes, this data can actually be made interesting and useful for ordinary mortals.) These contests were hugely important to the development of a strong and engaged Sunlight Labs community and for demonstrating an interest in government data. The community exploded reaching over 1,200 participants. Check out some of the wonderful apps if you haven’t seen them already.

The Great American Hackathon was held on December 12-13 just before Sunlight took off for its well-deserved winter break. The Hackathon -- run by our Labs team -- was a decentralized event held at over 20 venues across the country and its purpose was simple -- to get developers to meet each other and to work on new open source open government projects.

Transparency Corps. We launched Transparency Corps this year -- Sunlight’s answer to the question we often are asked: ‘How can I help?’ We ran several campaigns on that platform and expect it to become even more active in ‘10. We parsed the Kentucky State Legislature manually, worked with Open New York, collected the number of votes each member of Congress received and ran two earmark-related campaigns. All in all, it resulted in a contribution of 662 volunteer hours for the Sunlight Foundation and 228 hours for partners, and the completion of 8,312 individual tasks. Wow!

Mobile Apps. In the last half of 2009 we developed apps for the iPhone and the Android. The Android app, ‘Congress’, has received over 2,000 downloads which is significant for the Android marketplace. The iPhone app, ‘Real Time Congress’ just received approval and we plan to formally launch it the first week of January, 2010 We also built an overlay of Recovery.gov data on the LayAR augmented reality mobile app. This move into the use of augmented reality to show the usefulness of online disclosure of government information has sparked the interest of many. Fairly obviously, expect lots more along these lines in the next year.

Congrelate. Sunlight Labs built Congrelate as a way for people to view, sort, filter and share data about members of Congress and their districts. The Labs compiled data from Congress, the Census, OpenSecrets.org, GovTrack and other sources to let users manipulate the data and see how they relate. Congrelate allows users to select what data they would like to see, add it to a ‘sheet’ then filter and sort through it easily. Congrelate will get renewed attention in 2010 with new data sets added and an improved UI.

Transparency Camps. Sunlight hosted two unconferences this year -- one here in DC and one at Google HQ in Mountain View. Through events like this, and our Transparency Breakfasts and Transparency Happy Hours, Sunlight is helping to build new relationships that will hope will create and galvanize a transparency community. We hope you’ll join in these events as we plan more for the coming year. House (and Senate) Expenditures Online. As a direct result of Sunlight’s suggestions, on November 30, the House published their expenditures reports online for the first time. Sunlight had long advocated for such a move, and devoted a section of our Transparency in Government Act (drafted in 2008) to the issue.  (Senate reports will be forthcoming in 2010.) Sunlight quickly crafted an online database of the newly released information, since the House reports were released in a PDF document  (boo…..) rather than a searchable database. (File this one under the category of ‘If Congress won’t do 21st century style transparency we’ll show them how to do it.’)

Read the Bill. Technology makes it possible for anyone to review legislation before it’s considered and tell their representative what they think of it. In 2009 Sunlight began calling for posting all legislation online for 72 hours before its considered by either the House or the Senate. Now thanks to our efforts to heighten public awareness around this, Congress can no longer talk about a piece of major legislation without a reporter asking, ‘will the final version of the bill be online for 72 hours?’ Sunlight has helped to change the conversation and the way the public is thinking about transparency even when transparency laws or regulations have yet to pass. We’ll keep pushing this forward in ’10 to make sure that every bill is available on line before it’s considered by Congress.

Redesigning Government series. In 2009, Sunlight launched an ongoing ‘redesigning’ government series -- making mock-up redesigns of GSA, FEC, EPA, FCC and Supreme Court sites, and others. This work resulted in many conversations with each of the agencies about their Web sites and how the agencies could improve the ways they make data available to the public. We even crowd-sourced testimony we presented to the Federal Election Commission with details for their consideration. We think that was first!

Real Time Investigations had an incredibly successful year, using Sunlight and grantee-sponsored tools to push the envelope of transparency, and using shoe leather reporting to find out what the data can tell us about who owes what to whom, how and on what government spends its money. Hundreds of investigative posts were made to the site. Sunlight’s Reporting Group wrote 11 major stories using data from the Foreign Lobbying Influence Tracker alone. This team was also responsible for training more than 1,250 journalists and bloggers in 2009 an activity that will pay off handsomely as more data comes on line. Next year expect to find many  of these training resources online.

Party Time. Sunlight’s Party Time site now contains more than 6,700 fund-raising invitations and it has become a valuable resource for journalists, bloggers and advocacy groups. In particular, we saw an increase in outside groups using the data to do their own complex analysis. Everyone can follow the money after it’s raised, but only Sunlight gives you an introduction into real time political fund-raising.

The Foreign Lobbying Influence Tracker was launched this year, a joint project with ProPublica. The site digitized, for the first time, information from disclosures filed under the Foreign Agent Registration Act, or FARA, which requires lobbyists for foreign governments to reveal a wealth of information about their lobbying activities, including the dates and subjects of their contacts with members of Congress, their staffers and executive branch officials. The Foreign Lobbying Influence Tracker makes more than 13,000 records searchable by lobbyist, client, person contacted and issue raised. The site has been searched 163,104 times by media organizations, citizens and even congressional staff. We will continue this project into 2010 with ProPublica.

There was a lot more. Sunlight worked closely with the Administration to help move them in the right direction on the Open Government Directive and their lobby reform initiatives. We are happy to see our fingerprints in many aspects of what was announced by the White House in late December. So too, Sunlight worked with many players on the Hill to convince them to begin to open up Congressional information. We've begun to explore how transparency is practiced -- or not -- at the state level too. At the end of the year we were hard at work on several major legislative initiatives to be introduced in January of 2010 that would  dramatically improve Congressional transparency.

None of the above speaks to the thousands of blog posts written at Sunlight, Sunlight Labs, Open Congress, Real Time Investigations, or on the Party Time websites, nor the stunning visualizations that accompanied and highlighted many of those posts (think  ‘a picture is worth a 1,000 words'), nor the hours of conversations with elected officials, their staff and administration officials, as we all come to grips with how technology can change how we get access to information and what the public can do with it. Our work on SubsidyScope, the Pew Charitable Trust project for which we are building a database of government subsidies, garnered tremendous kudos for its design and ease of use as the first sectors were released. There are a number of soon to be released projects on which we spent hundreds of hours of development time this year  – new tools that will make it easier for journalists, bloggers and citizens to make use of data in easily understandable ways.

2010 will be an incredible year for us.  Lots of plans are underway. Some I’ve mentioned above, and Clay Johnson, Labs director detailed a number of them including figuring out how to handle the glut of data that government will make available under its Open Government Directive and how to enhance it with state and local government data too; mashing important ‘influence’ and ‘spending’ data sets together so it will be available with a single search; widgets to make following your lawmaker’s campaign contributions and earmarks (and other activities) very easy; launching a new major new campaign to drive public demand for more -- more transparency, more data, and a more open government. And always on our list is making all this information more easily available for reporters, bloggers and online citizens like you. We’d love to have your ideas of what you’d find useful. Please leave them in the comment section below.

For all your support and help -- and for the hard work of our grantees -- we are most grateful. We welcome all your contributions -- monetary and participatory. And we hope you will help us keep transparency priceless.