Information Mashing. Don’t you just love that term? It’s one of the major goals of Sunlight and while we’ve been working on it for the past couple of months we have a ways to go before it happens in any substantial way. Our goal is simple: integrate in a user-friendly way individual data sets (like campaign contributions, lobbyists and government contracts) that makes the whole larger than the sum of its parts.
We’d like to create something we’ve dubbed an "Accountability Matrix." A website where, with one click you can look up a major donor and see not just their campaign contributions, but also their lobbying expenditures, the names of members who’ve flown on their private jet, the names of former congressional staffers they’ve hired, and so on.
In a nutshell, we want to make information more liquid and more accessible to the public. Our initial thoughts would be to establish this as a distributed infrastructure where various groups maintain their specialty databases, but provide a mechanism to link the data sets. This idea of "information liquidity" will allow analyses and public access previously never before possible. Obviously we’ll have to come up with a really user-friendly interface.
Our initial experiment is likely to be to combine core state campaign finance information from the Institute on State Money and Politics with top federal donors as compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. We’ve been talking with both groups about a beta project that would be publicly available this summer. Their techies have been putting their heads about how to mash their somewhat disparate data together and I expect to have a proposal from them soon.
But imagine if we could go much further and link campaign finance information to information on lobbying, and to government grants and contracts and then linking all of that to regulatory compliance information, such as toxic releases and accident and injury information, and court decisions. This could make it pretty easy, for example, to figure out the behavior of federal contractors and whether the government is doing business with scofflaws. If we can pull this off we may be able to add exponentially to the understanding of influence peddling in Washington, and do it in a way that any citizen can use.
Individually non-governmental organizations do not have the resources to build or maintain a broad-based "Accountability Matrix." The technology is currently available to make it happen – and at reasonable cost. Sunlight would like to have a hand in making it happen.
Any thoughts on this subject? Ideas? Experience? Send them my way.