Last evening, over a hundred supporters of open government joined Sunlight Foundation, the National Press Club, ProPublica, United Republic, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Openthegovernment.org, Online News Association, ASNE, POPVOX, ProPublica, Public Campaign, Public Citizen, and Electronic Privacy Information Center to celebrate Sunshine Week. The event held at the National Press Club, was an opportunity to meet those working on and committed to transparency.
Although the event was just an informal gathering for advocates and journalists, the guest of honor was clearly the spirit of James Madison whose birthday coincides with Sunshine Week. An early advocate of transparency, he famously wrote:
"A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce, or a tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives."
Tomorrow is James Madison's actual birthday and also National Freedom of Information (FOI) Day. The First Amendment Center will be holding a conference at the Newseum to discuss some of the current issues surrounding freedom of information and open records. Can't make it to the conference? You can follow the conversation live on webcast.
Are the PR flacks of the Obama administration against government transparency? If not, then why have some instituted media policies that effectively gag federal scientists, sometimes preventing them from informing the public via news media about federal scientific research, data and policies? (I suspect there are many government flacks who are frustrated by these policies, but must enforce them as part of their jobs.)
This week, Sunlight staff shared and discussed a damning article in the Columbia Journalism Review about a disturbing trend: federal agencies such as the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) are establishing guidelines for interacting with the press that subvert the role of their public affairs departments. My counterparts within government are now less likely to help reporters understand scientific data; instead, they serve as gatekeepers whose primary role seems to be to thwart the public’s right to know.
At first, I thought my co-workers at Sunlight reacted with a knee-jerk disdain for public relations work because the guidelines route press calls through a centralized communications team instead of letting journalists dial government scientists directly. But, reading the CJR report, which is informed by a survey of science, health and environmental journalists conducted by CJR and ProPublica, I realized these policies aren’t about ensuring consistency of message (unless you count silence as a message) and efficiency. They were about censorship.
It’s ironic that such policies stem from the White House’s efforts to ensure scientific integrity and public communication. This memo [PDF link, which is frustratingly an image PDF] states that such policies should allow for “openness and transparency with the media and the American people.”
But that’s not what’s happening, and that’s a shame as it tarnishes the reputation of other sound public relations professionals. (There are many of us, even in DC!) There's something to be said for having a good public affairs office that routes inquiries so that the agency is coordinating its messaging for accuracy and consistency. That's what we do here at Sunlight. Sure, there may be times when a reporter gets through to our spokespeople directly, who grant the interview and then tell my team about it. But for the most part, I try to ensure Sunlight’s Communications team is the first line of contact with reporters (and others), so that we can figure out who's the right person to help, what pertinent projects/blog posts we can promote to provide better context and, finally, make sure the interview happens on time. We also keep track of press inquiries to spot trends in what topics are gaining popularity (sometimes prompting us to coordinate research and post relevant updates to our blogs) and keep on top of who's interested in specific topics (so we can pitch to them in the future).
This is not the same thing as what CJR describes is happening now in the public affairs departmemts in agencies like HHS, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Federal Drug Administration. And, as these are new media relations policies, they’re not a sign of bureaucratic business as usual. For example, CJR describes the obstructionism Felice Freyer, who chairs the Association of Health Care Journalists’ Right to Know Committee, encountered in trying to get an interview for an article in The Providence Journal, where she has covered the medical beat since 1989:
Unsure which press officer to approach, she filled out the “Timely Response E-mail Form” on the agency’s website. Several hours passed with no response, so she called and spoke with a press officer. He suggested that Freyer e-mail her questions to him, which she did. Nothing. When she called again two days later, the press officer said he was waiting for a response from his superiors. He suggested that she resubmit her questions for a third time. She did, to no effect. Several more days passed and she sent yet another e-mail asking if she could expect answers, and if not, why. “At this point, all we can say is that the FDA is continuing to look into these cases,” the press officer replied.
Sunlight’s Reporting Group journalists also often face the same deliberate impediments by administration public affairs officials. Just as the reporters surveyed in the CJR piece, they’re left hanging when requesting interviews, and after weeks (or even months!) of persistence, told they can only cite government officials on background. Citing unnamed sources hurts the credibility of journalism, which can be further compromised if later challenged to prove the truth of such unattributed statements. Likewise, Sunlight's own experiences in trying to obtain government information using Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests reinforce the notion that the Obama administration has not lived up to its promise to be more transparent. So much for our ability to report and shine a light on the government in a timely fashion. (This also frustrates yours truly, who sees news cycles come and go, knowing we have a good analysis to inform the public debate that can’t be published and pitched because we can’t get the information we need out of the government.)
President Obama won the hearts and minds of many American voters with promises to open up government. His administration made initial strides to deliver on that promise, establishing policies like the Open Government Directive and making government data available online for anyone to access on Data.gov. The thing is, you can’t just report on data in a vacuum. It needs to be explained and contextualized by experts. And those experts are being muzzled by policies that reek of obstructionism and an outdated culture. These policies likely prevent the administration’s PR flacks from helping to get the word out on news that would even make the administration look good. It’s as if the public affairs departments have forgotten they serve the public interest -- let’s not forget it’s our taxes that pay for their salaries.
Today the Sunlight Foundation is proud to unveil Sarah's Inbox, our attempt to make Sarah Palin's recently released email records easier to use with a searchable function and an interface similar to Gmail. It builds on Elena's Inbox, our wildly popular project launched almost exactly one year ago that took the email data of Supreme Court justice Elena Kagan released by the Clinton Library and made it more accessible online.
Sarah's Inbox allows users to view the more than 14,000 emails from Sarah Palin's tenure as Governor of Alaska with familiar sorting functions. You can go page by page starting from the most recent emails or, most importantly, search. To help direct folks to interesting items, try some of our sample searches, star emails for later viewing or view the most starred emails by all users.
The project started after we were again approached by folkson Twitter and the Sunlight Labs list (join!) to take this ugly data and add the Sunlight secret sauce to make it user friendly. Initially we were cautious because the cast of characters who directly obtained the data included the likes of the New York Times, ProPublica, Mother Jones and MSNBC.com. We spoke with ProPublica and they encouraged us to take a stab at fashioning our own tool, so we borrowed their data and went to work. Sarah's Inbox would not be possible if not for the great people at Crivella West to gather, lift, scan and pay for all this data.
Like Elena's Inbox, Sarah's Inbox faced staggering issues of data quality because government officials continue to release digital files as hideous printouts requiring a laborious and error-ridden optical character recognition (OCR) pass over. You will notice that many of the emails are garbled, incomplete or contain odd characters - please keep in mind that we did the best with what we had and are not responsible for the content. Due to the programmatic nature of the tools used to build this site, we recommend checking any research effort against the source files.
Disclaimers aside, please enjoy Sarah's Inbox and tweet interesting items you find with #sarahsinbox.
The day will look at the practical applications of transparency initiatives - a mix of policy and technical considerations. The event is full of familiar faces in the transparency world and will be webcast live with an opportunity for all viewers to submit questions (and on CSPAN).
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.
ProPublica went through the process of requesting all of the personal financial disclosures from the Obama administration and has posted them to their site. Recently the administration streamlined the process of requesting access to the financial disclosure forms. Sunlight's John Wonderlich wrote about that here.
And you can peruse the 179 Obama administration financial disclosures here.
ProPublica has a cool interactive graph on “The Stimulus Plan: Where the Money Would Go.” The graph tracks how the economic stimulus plan would spend more than $825 billion on programs to create jobs and bolster programs to create jobs, cut taxes and help lower-income Americans. What you're looking at is called a tree map -- with boxes representing each of the categories where the money will be spent, such as “Tax Cuts,” “Aid to States,” “Aid to Workers,” “Education,” “Energy” and the like. The graph reveals details when you scroll over the boxes. By right clicking you can zoom in on a category.
This is a very effective way to convey complicated and extensive amounts of information in a comprehensible manner. Check it out.
ProPublica is looking for nominations for the best reports from state and federal agencies like the General Accounting Office, various Inspectors General, special counsels, state auditors, Congressional committees, attorneys general, special prosecutors and the like, blogs Mike Webb, the journal’s director of communicationst.
Anyone can nominate deserving reports. You can download a nomination/entry form here,. But act quickly…The deadline is this Friday, January 30th.
Reports by government agencies are a crucial component in maintaining a high level of transparency for our democracy. Various government agencies conduct investigations and produce reports detailing corruption and exposing information that some in government would hope to keep secret and out of the public eye. With the rare exception, however, these reports receive little attention and recognition. Now, ProPublica will honor the best.
ProPublica has convened a very impressive panel of judges, including former U.S. Rep. James Leach, former Comptroller General David Walker, former Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith, Denver Post editor Gregory Moore, former federal prosecutor Victoria Toensing, former New York Times public editor Byron Calame and ProPublica’s own editor-in-chief Paul Steiger. They will honor the winners at a luncheon in Washington, D.C., this spring.
ProPublica has a cool new feature tracking promises made by politicians and political and governmental entities. For years, I have heard from people looking for this kind of a project. Too often politicians and governmental bodies make a promise knowing that in a few months no one will remember when or what they promised to do.
Currently, ProPublica is tracking two promises, one made by Sen. Chris Dodd to disclose the details of his V.I.P. mortgage with Countrywide, and another made by the Treasury Department to reveal how much they are paying the Bank of New York Mellon to be the "prime contractor" for the bailout. ProPublica is seeking submissions from readers for other promises to track.
One thing I am curious about is whether or not the Promise Clocks are available as widgets. That seems like it would be an essential part of this project.