It’s probably not necessary to remind you what semi-national holiday is today. From heart shaped donuts at the Krispy Kreme to special couples’ menu at the restaurants to the plethora of sweets and candied hearts in the office, today is indeed National Heart Health Day! Okay, maybe that was two weeks ago (National Wear Red Day) and all those sweets would probably be terrible for your heart. I won’t sugar coat it anymore (*wince) but it is indeed Valentine’s Day. A day dedicated to the celebration of your loved one(s) and to supporting the flowers/confectionery/greeting card industry.
But in the midst of all that love, can you spare some for Sunlight?
Sure we aren’t your significant other, or even casually dating, but we have been there for you when you needed us most…
Remember that time you thought your ‘loved’ one was cheating on you and found all that weird campaign finance and lobbying spending on Influence Explorer?
Or when you weren’t sure if you were ready to commit because of all the stuff you were reading in the news media? We helped you run a Poligraft on that.
And whenever there was a break in your social calendar, we helped you fill it up with the hottest parties in town with Party Time. Speaking of which, did you make it to the V-Day breakfast this morning?
And lastly, when you were sick of being nagged to ‘take out the trash - we got you the proof of every time you have been told to do it in Capitol Words (apparently only a handful of times, so stop being so sensitive!)
They say a functional relationship is one where there is a healthy give and take… and after all that we have given you, we only ask for one thing. Scientific research shows that people are more prone to respond positively to favors and request if presented in poetry, so here we go:
Today's Washington Journal focused on foreign lobbying and the role that former government officials and K Street firms play in advancing the agendas of foreign governments and political parties in Washington. I discussed some of the background of the law that requires these firms to disclose information on their activities, the Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938, and talked about what these disclosures tell us about how foreign interests influence U.S. policies. Watch the whole segment below:
Here are links to the sites I mentioned that make these disclosures accessible for the general public. My favorite, the Foreign Lobbyist Influence Tracker--a joint project between Sunlight and our friends at ProPublica, is a great place to start research. It digitizes the information that representatives of foreign entities are required to disclose to the U.S. Justice Department. It has data from 2008 and 2009, and we'll be updating it this summer with information from 2010 filings. To see the latest disclosures by foreign agents, check out our Lobbying Tracker.
This week marks the fifth anniversary of the Sunlight Foundation. It is exciting to reflect on how far we've come, the great people who helped us along the way and where we plan to go. With your help, we've grown from a small organization with big ideas to a connected community whose call for greater government openness and transparency is heard throughout the country.
We began with the nonpartisan goal of using the revolutionary power of the Internet and new technology to open government information. When we started, this modern interpretation of transparency was almost a completely foreign idea in Washington - a place where corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff dominated the headlines and sifting through reams of paper in order to get at the truth of what was going on was the status quo. While ordinary citizens were embracing new media tools and websites that gave them a readily available stream of information at their fingertips, government showed little interest in keeping up with the times.
Right out of the gate, we took on these age-old issues with a fresh arsenal of online tools and empowered citizens to engage in new forms of direct oversight. We believed then, as we still do, that none of us are as smart as all of us and that we have a stronger democracy when open information gives people the ammunition they need so they can speak truth to power. Sunlight developed all kinds of new tools and websites to achieve these goals and get the public involved in the political process.
Through it all we are most inspired and proud of the people who take action and participate in the process to improve our democracy. Thank you to the countless people and organizations who have worked with us, used our tools, dug deep into our websites through our first five years. The Sunlight Foundation will continue to work with you explore how to enhance our democracy and citizen engagement with our public officials using online tools. Sure, there's a lot more to be done. As a wise person once said, if this was easy, it would have been done already. And we promise you - the best is yet to come!
Since the unrest in the Middle East began a month ago the Sunlight Foundation has shone a unique spotlight on the lobbying efforts by the governments now facing massive protests and upheaval. Check out this post for an overview of the lobbying contracts from some of the Arab world and below for in-depth coverage on specific countries:
Curious about other countries? The Sunlight Foundation and ProPublica created the Foreign Lobbying Influence Tracker to enable research of the lobbying records by other countries. This searchable database is a collection of filings under the Foreign Agent Registration Act that is maintained by the Justice Department. Since mid-2007, the pdf images of these documents are available online and the Foreign Lobbyist Influence Tracker is the strongest resource available that digitizes these important records.
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.
Here are some of the more interesting media mentions of Sunlight and our friends and allies over the past week:
Last Saturday afternoon, C-SPAN broadcast an interview of Ellen Miller, Sunlight's executive director, discussing how the Internet is being used to provide transparency in the workings of government.
The Associated Press used data from the Center for Responsive Politics Chevron Corp. spent more than $12.8 million lobbying the federal government in the first half of this year, in an attempt to influence pending climate-change legislation and taxes targeting oil producers. So far this year, the oil giant has almost matched the $12.9 million they spent lobbying in all of 2008.
The Foreign Lobbying Influence Tracker, the searchable database that allows users to easily follow the money and connect the dots within records of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) database, launched this week. ProPublica and Sunlight teamed up on the project that allows anyone to quickly learn what foreign governments are lobbying whom, how often and about what. Alex Knott with CQ Politics covered the launch and quotes Ellen saying how information contained on the site shows how effective lobbyists can be. "While it brings needed transparency to these filings, it raises the question of what lobbyists for health care, energy and other interests -- who disclose far less information -- are up to in Washington," she said. In this morning's "In the Loop" column, The Washington Post's Al Kamen highlighted the Tracker. "What? You don't have a registered foreign agent working for you?" he asked. "Everyone's got one. Even the Dalai Lama!"
Katherine Mangu-Ward, senior editor of Reason magazine, writing at The Wall Street Journal, penned a column titled "Transparency Chic," where she highlights several efforts by private groups and individuals to pry open government information. "Tech celebs like Craigslist founder Craig Newmark and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales have flocked to the Sunlight Foundation, which uses the Internet to improve meaningful access to government," she wrote.
ABC News' David Wright reported on the health care debate and includes a quote from Bill Allison, Sunlight's senior fellow, about the special interests attempts to influence the health care debate. Bill explained who's working for who: "Insurance companies battling providers. Drug companies battling insurance companies. Hospitals going to war against nursing homes. All kinds of institutions are looking to protect their interests."
McClatchy Newspapers editorialized about how the Obama administration is continuing some of the opaque practices of the Bush administration despite promises to the contrary. They cite Ellen's blog post from last week about the need for the White House to list presidential signing statements on its Web site in an easy-to-find manner as an example. A number of McClatchy papers ran the editorial, including The (Colorado Springs, Colo.) Gazette.