Do-it-Yourself Watchdogging


Why should investigative reporters have all the fun?

Sunlight today is unveiling a new website – Watchdogging 101. It’s a collection of more than 20 illustrated tutorials that give step-by-step instructions on where and how to dig out information on the web about money and influence in national politics.

It’s all presented in a Q&A format and the questions run the gamut from the most basic – Who’s my Congressman? – to more complicated issues like tracking industry giving and finding out who’s lobbying for whom.

From the outset, the site has been designed to grow organically – a necessity as the web is a fluid environment and new questions arise all the time. In fact, we’re actively encouraging users to ask questions of their own. The best ones will be incorporated into the growing body of tutorials.

At this stage, most tutorials link to pages deep within the rich-but-complicated Open Secrets website of the Center for Responsive Politics. While Open Secrets is by far the richest storehouse of information on money in politics on the web, it now contains more than one million pages. That can make navigation a tricky business, even if you know what you’re looking for. The tutorials show you how to zoom in straight to the pages that have the answers you’re looking for. Once you’re there, of course, you can explore on your own – and we hope you will.

One thing you’ll find out quickly as you sift through the questions is that some are easier to answer than others. As much as we’d like to think, in this age of Google, that any answer is only a few mouse clicks away, that’s definitely not the case when it comes to money in politics.

The tutorials will hold your hand, but they don’t try to sugarcoat the fact that answering some questions can involve quite a bit of work. And some questions – like tracking last-minute contributions to Senate campaigns – can’t be answered at all, since senators file their reports on paper and the information won’t be online for weeks to come.

Here at Sunlight, we’re looking at the Watchdogging website as yet another experiment not just in increasing transparency, but in giving ordinary citizens new tools to do the kind of hands-on research that used to be the exclusive domain of journalists and political insiders.

To make sure it fulfills that promise, we need your help. Check out the site yourself. Dig into the questions. Let us know if you find anything confusing or misleading. And if you see a question that begs to be answered, send it in. As interesting as Watchdogging 101 is on opening day, it will only get richer as the body of questions and answers grows.

Let the sleuthing begin!