It’s Been Almost a Year …..


Sunlight opened its doors for business less than a year ago. In our first year, we focused on planting lots of seeds: identifying key assets in the existing public interest community and assisting them in building up their web infrastructure and getting their data resources out of silos and facing outward onto the web; investing in the development of several major new data-sets that are filling in missing elements of the money-influence-accountability nexus; creating or partnering in the creation of whole new sites and tools that are geared to make this data more accessible and more widely distributed across the web as a platform; reaching out to and establishing working relationships with likeminded individuals and organizations around the country; experimenting with new ways of engaging the public in fostering transparency; and beginning a conversation with Members of and candidates for Congress about being more open and transparent.

A central part of our thinking is that we are not just building specific products that fuse political data in vital new ways, but that by developing and encouraging the creation of new databases with attached APIs, we are freeing the data from its various silos and enabling many iterations to flower across the web, all of which will promote greater accountability because they can be tuned to the particular interests of individual developers and users. It is our belief that we are helping push the use of political data online towards a tipping point where many more people-all using the data in a variety of individualized ways-contribute to a far more robust bottom-up watch-dogging of the electoral arena. We are confident this will lead to the political system itself adopting more transparent behavior not in self-defense but as a proactive political decision.

You probably won't be surprised to know that we have some pretty ambitious plans for next year, even though we will consciously remain in a learning mode. After all, 2007 will just be our second year of operation!

In January we will launch "OpenCongress" which aims to be "Thomas" if it was designed for ordinary people. The site hopes to inform and connect citizens with what is happening in Congress by bringing together Thomas's official congressional data on bills, votes, floor statements and conference reports with press and blog coverage, non-profit analyses, and social wisdom generated by its users. OpenCongress will allow anyone to easily track a bill, an issue, a vote, a member, a campaign contribution, or a phrase used in the Congressional Record, and to follow developments in any of those areas by subscribing to its RSS feed. The first phase of the site will concentrate on making it easier for users to find out basic information, but we hope is to facilitate collaborative analysis of bills by experimenting with wikis and message boards for sharing information and context.

Also early in the year we'll launch what we are now calling "Washington Watchdog" [updated, 6/18/07, Washington Watchdog is now known as LOUIS] a database which tracks and makes searchable nearly every Congressional and Executive Branch document with significant context sensitivity and interlinking. Developed initially by two brilliant developers at The Noise Pollution Clearinghouse, Sunlight will take this amazing search tool to the next level, building a user-friendly front-end and adding APIs which will enable its information to be spread far and wide. This site contains the full searchable record not just of every action of Congress, but also the Federal Register, presidential statements, and all regulatory agency actions and rules.

And also in January we will host a conference with the Berkman Center at Harvard on the use of political information in an Internet Era. The conference, which will include local political bloggers from at least 10 states (many of them grantees of Sunlight's) and internet information leaders from around the country, will be focused on improving the ability of bloggers and others to take the newly transparent information and make sure it gets in the hands of citizens.

A number of efforts we've launched this year will be taken to the next level.

We will push for broader adoption of our "Popup Politician" widget; we'll continue working with our major grantees to complete working public APIs; we will launch several more "Guided Research Projects" like "Is Congress A Family Business;" and yes, we will expand our grant making. Congresspedia will remain a flagship Sunlight joint project with Center for Media and Democracy and we'll be doing a lot more to attract both more readers and contributors.

But we also want to push outward from this work. We want to help our major grantees develop a working business consortium that helps them become more self-sustaining, perhaps by finding innovative (and institutionally acceptable) ways to monetize their web traffic. On the drawing board still for us too is to work with our community on standardizing corporate names across databases to facilitate the development of the true "Accountability Matrix." And we want to develop new tools to give people a way to easily pull together information from existing and new online data to create a personal political almanac/guide which they can use to discover, aggregate, use, and share information on the activities of their representatives and issues and real-world events which personally matter.

All that's only the beginning! If 2006 was about sowing seeds, 2007 is about beginning to harvest the fruits.

In this (likely) last post for me for this year, I want to say thanks to all the colleagues who have made this year for Sunlight so extraordinary. There are many of you but none more so than Mike, Micah, Andrew, Greg, Zephyr, Larry, Bill, Eric, Carl, Kerry, Paul, Conor, Nisha and Elliott. Thanks to our advisors – Esther, Craig, and Kim – for their ongoing advice and wise counsel. Our grantees have done amazing work this year – we are very proud of their accomplishments and have been glad to be of help.

But most of all, all of us here at Sunlight want to thank the growing community of engaged and active citizens who are as fascinated as we are by what it means to be involved in politics in the age of the Internet.