Sunlight Live Recap: How We Did It

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During the bipartisan health care summit on Thursday, Feb 25, Sunlight tried something new by connecting a live political event to the government data and information we work to make more accessible every day. The hope here was to give real-time context to statements made by public officials using government data, and let the numbers do a little more of the talking than just the politicians.

Dubbed “Sunlight Live,” our coverage of the joint Republican and Democratic event far exceeded our expectations, thanks to all of you.

These are a couple of notable stats that we think thoroughly debunk the notion that the public is disinterested in un-biased data-centric coverage of politics:

– 42,954 of us watched the debate on Sunlight Live.

– 9,816 of us participated in Sunlight Live through our live blog, leaving several thousand comments or questions, 698 of which were ultimately displayed live.

– 1,364 tweets were sent out linking to Sunlightfoundation.com/live (or bit.ly/HCRLive), reaching a fuzzy estimate of 2.5 million people based on the number of followers those tweeters have.

…and in friendly-competitive comparison, just over 1,100 tweets were sent linking to WhiteHouse.gov/live.

– Over 2,000 people were active at any given time on the site during the last 4 hours of Sunlight Live coverage, with a high of 2,397 at 3:30 p.m.

3,550 replayed the live blog and all of the facts our team pulled throughout the event in the 24 hours AFTER the summit had concluded.

At the least, we hope these numbers demonstrate three things:

1) There is a demand for data-centric, unbiased coverage when it comes to understanding what is going on in our government.

2) Live coverage that challenges, or is even preferred to, that of major news networks can come from just about anywhere -even with relatively minimal development, production and promotion. (Or, in other words, a nonprofit can take on this type of thing with just about any issue – political or otherwise – and be successful.)

3) More and better government data must be made available so that government leaders can be held accountable in real-time as events unfold using platforms like Sunlight Live (or anything new we can create together).

As is part of our mission, this post is intended to share what was required to pull off Sunlight Live so that it can be improved upon with your feedback, and also be a starting point to figure out how to easily replicate Sunlight Live in a way that requires fewer resources. We’d love for it to serve as a model across the country for anyone to adopt openly.

Here’s what it took…

TECHNOLOGY and DEVELOPMENT

Putting together everything required for Sunlight Live on the technical end wasn’t necessarily difficult, and almost all of it was done with publicly available tech, but clearly, the project did take the time and energy of several people to figure out. These are the primary components:

  • Video: The first, and perhaps most important, aspect of covering a live event as we did was access to a live, embeddable video feed (in other words, we needed the same type of HTML code included with any YouTube video to embed in our site). During the health care summit, the White House made the video feed publicly available for any blogger or organization to embed on their website for the first time, and we were able to take advantage of that. We weren’t the only ones either, as the White House has since reported that there were 3.9 million streams of the debate online. Thankfully, after the success of the summit’s feed, every indication is that the White House will provide embed code for all events they host in the future. We hope a partner such as C-SPAN will start to do the same for Congress.
  • Hosting: Determining how to handle a deluge of incoming traffic was important to do well before the event started. We weren’t actually sure if we would get a lot of traffic, but we wanted to be prepared if we did. The day before we conducted the event, our tech team prepped our servers to host as many as 4,000 people at any given time on our sites. Ultimately, Sunlight Live had incoming links from such high-traffic sites as Huffington Post’s homepage, the New York Times blog, Andrew Sullivan’s blog at the Atlantic, Fivethirtyeight.com and others – so the forethought to prepare the infrastructure paid off. Oddly enough, on the day of the health care summit, one of our blog posts that was totally unrelated to Sunlight Live got linked on the homepage of Engadget as well, and the servers still held up with that extra load too. Creating that kind of capacity takes technical expertise, but doesn’t necessarily have to be that expensive. The “box” that we used for hosting costs less than $200/month. Getting a Tim Ball, however, can be a harder challenge.
  • Publicly available and customized widgets: Other than the video box, we hosted three other widgets that made the Sunlight Live page the interactive experience that it was. The first widget was custom built by our Sunlight Labs and provided data from OpenSecrets – illuminating campaign contributions to those who spoke during the debate. Given our survey responses, the campaign finance data displayed through this first widget was undoubtedly the most unique part of what we were able to do. The second widget was a tweet stream widget (of which there are dozens that are free and easy to implement, and just about any will do), and the third was a live blog module called CoverItLive that is also open for public use. We chose CoverItLive as our live blog module because of past experience with it, and its ability to serve multiple contributors and a large number of participants and commenters at once. Regarding the “hosting” issue above, we were also confident in CiL’s ability to handle load because the only time we’ve seen it go down is when hundreds of blogs use it simultaneously during announcements by Steve Jobs for Apple. We know people care a lot about health care… but they don’t care as much as they do about the iPad.
  • Design: Designing something as simple and useful as Sunlight Live takes time and talent – it’s not just as easy as “throwing up” a page. Having someone pay attention to the size and position of the various components of a multi-use webpage is important both to functionality of the initiative as well as to making it as engaging as possible. The simple “4 box” set up for Sunlight Live made it relatively easy for people to see what was going on in a variety of ways and participate with it. As we experiment further with Sunlight Live, the layout and design is also something we expect to be continuously tweaked.

One thing we know for certain is that in the relatively near future, we will  be able to provide multiple, customizable Sunlight widgets – similar in some respects to the campaign contributions “box” that was displayed next to the video feed throughout the health care summit – that display many different types of government information –

REPORTING and RESEARCH

  • Scheduling: In the case of the health care summit, a critical component to covering it successfully was that we knew the event was happening about a week beforehand, and we were given a list of attendees that was regularly and publicly updated. Because we knew what was coming, we were able to create a game plan that would have been nearly impossible on a shorter term basis. That is to say, when attendees such as Rep. Marsha Blackburn or Sen. Max Baucus RSVP’d for the summit, we were able to begin research on them well-prior to the debate – using both past Sunlight research and new external sources. In short, the time we were afforded by those announcements was incredibly important.
  • Research: For the health care summit, the sheer amount of research our team conducted into the background of attendees, into current health care laws and regulations, and into quite a lot more can’t be underestimated as it fed our coverage throughout the 7+ hour event. In the case of our live blog coverage in particular, Sunlight Live used 6 full time reporters for the better part of three days to conduct the research necessary for accurate coverage. On the day of the event those 6 subsequently used that research to respond in real-time as the summit unfolded. If we as open government advocates do our job, a certain amount of this research can be automated in the future. In general, however, any live event will require significant research. Our editorial director, Bill Allison, will post something in the next few days more fully describing our research methodology.
  • Visualizations: One of the elements that we prepared for before the debate, and spent a good bit of time creating during the debate (or trying to create in some cases), was real-time visualizations of what was happening during the summit. Visualizations can be an odd beast, because on the one hand, they are absolutely about engaging viewers in the event/content by making data more beautiful and compelling. Visualizations may not, at first glance, seem to be part of “research.” In order to produce a useful, accurate visualization of data, however, you need visualization tools, design talent and exceptional research into the right data – and that’s why I’m putting it here. One piece that our designer Kerry Mitchell created on the fly was a network graph reflecting the contribution connections of Senator Chuck Grassley (above). A few others we made were these TweetGraphs and Word Clouds created using freely available services StreamGraph and Wordle, as transcripts of certain sections of the debate were released. One of the things that we worked on, but weren’t able to complete in time, was an interactive seating chart with photos and basic information of all of the government officials that were at the debate. The seating chart visual was to be based on a .pdf seating chart provided by Politico that we saw via Twitter. Another example of a conceived-but-not-created visual was staff and contributor connections between various speakers at the summit in the order that the debaters spoke. Ultimately, many of our ideas weren’t doable in time to be useful during the health care summit itself, but we expect to be able to do more visuals during live events in the future – especially as we are able to better engage the open government community around what would be most useful to visualize (harder than it sounds), and around the collection of data in the right formats which is necessary to create visualizations (also harder than it sounds).

PUBLIC ENGAGEMENT

  • Email: On the morning of the debate, we sent an email to all of those that have supported Sunlight in some way in the past, numbering in the tens of thousands. Of those who received an email, roughly 33% opened it and just under 6% of the recipients clicked through to the page before noon. As simple a step as sending an email is, both the timing of the email and the connectedness (or influence) of the people who received it, were very important pieces that drove early buzz around Sunlight Live and helped it to get picked up by others.
  • Bloggers and journalists: In addition to citizen outreach, we sent a media advisory to the various members of the press that we are regularly in touch with, and similarly reached out to individual bloggers to let them know what we were doing. The aim here was less to get them to cover our work, but rather to be a resource to writers as they tried to cover the summit. In this case, by becoming that resource, we also became something intriguing that writers wanted to write about simply for what we were doing – such as pieces written by Ari Melber or Jason Lenkins. Two of the first larger blogs to pick us up were the New York Times’ Prescriptions blog and Time Magazine’s “Swampland” blog, which helped to give credibility to what we were up to. The blogs that drove the most traffic were Huffington Post, New York Times, Daily Kos and Andrew Sullivan’s on The Atlantic.
  • Twitter: As noted in the statistics at the beginning of this post, the Sunlight team used both our organizational and personal Twitter accounts – which reach approximately 50,000 followers in total – as a primary means of spreading the word about what we were doing with Sunlight Live. Once the initial word was put forward, we relied on individuals who liked what we were doing (not knowing ahead of time that they would, in fact, like it) to share it both on Twitter and Facebook. In total 1,364 people tweeted the direct link to Sunlight Live, including such high profile online personalities as Tim O’Reilly (@timoreilly) and Erin Kotecki Vest (@queenofspain), as well as a slew of journalists such as ABC’s White House correspondent Jake Tapper. Additionally, Twitter served as one of the best tools for conversation with those watching the event.

MANAGEMENT and MONITORING

Keeping everything running and on time required both personnel and some technical tools. In our case we had one engagement director (me, in this cast) to keep everything organized internally, and to keep our outreach coordinated. Our toolset consisted primarily of Chartbeat, Twitter and its various third party clients, and Google Analytics to keep track of what was going well and what wasn’t.

  • Chartbeat: If you do not use Chartbeat for your websites, go get it right now. It is inexpensive and invaluable. It’s perhaps one of the most useful tools I’ve ever used – especially in conjunction with Twitter, which Chartbeat feeds right into its reporting mechanism. In one instance, we lost about 300 viewers all at once because the video feed from the White House went down. As soon as the feed broke, we were able to communicate with those that were starting to leave and reassure them that nothing had broken on our end, and we would be back up shortly. We quickly returned to our original numbers. Similarly as new blogs linked to us, we could see where our participants were coming from and engage with them accordingly. And of course, like any organization trying to demonstrate their effectiveness, Chartbeat helped us to first and foremost see in real-time if the service we were providing was was actually working for folks. After the fact, Chartbeat has already been instrumental in helping us evaluate ourselves and been something we can point to that shows Sunlight Live’s effectiveness to donors, board members and potential partners.
  • Twitter: Filtered properly using a third party client like Tweetdeck, Twitter was/is undoubtedly one of the best ways to monitor conversation, engage with participants, respond to problems or criticisms and generally keep a finger on the pulse of what’s going on during a live event. Throughout the day, we were able to send thank you’s to public endorsers of Sunlight Live, and in several instances, those people actually sent a second note about our coverage and got more deeply engaged when they knew we saw them. Overall, in the case of the health care summit and Sunlight Live, Twitter helped us monitor and connect with incoming blog links (supplementing Chartbeat), participate in the broader health care conversation (beyond anything that we were facilitating) and reach out to those who wanted to engage directly with our team. Any organization, blogger, journalist or citizen out there who has not figured out how to filter and harness Twitter while covering a live event – or may perhaps still be resistant to Twitter as this type of tool – needs to get with it. [UPDATE: Another great, and mostly unknown, tool that we used was Back Tweets, which allowed us to more easily quantify the number of folks tweeting about us.]
  • Google Analytics: If Chartbeat was a critical component in monitoring the real-time effectiveness of Sunlight Live, then Analytics is a core piece of understanding overall effectiveness.  As a tool, Analytics shows numbers over time, and in aggregate, in a way that Chartbeat doesn’t. For instance, if Chartbeat tells you that the New York Times is linking to you and that there are 50 people currently on your site who came from that destination, Analytics will tell you how many people came from NYT over the entire day. Most organizations have moved to Google Analytics at this point already, so its merits go without saying, but having someone (or multiple people) that know how to analyze and use the data that Analytics provides is crucial to a successful live-coverage event.

Breaking down 7+ hours of coverage into 30 seconds, this video is something we put together with a stop-motion camera set up in the corner of our “war room.” It’s cheap and dirty and something that just about any organization or group can do. Great for following up with donors or supporters who love seeing their support in action. It’s kinda captivating actually. If you really want to have some “fun” (read: “geek out”), watch it frame by frame. I particularly like watching Tweetdeck and Chartbeat continuously pop up on my screen, which is the one that’s most easily visible on the left side of the table, as it shows just how useful that was for sifting and sorting conversation.

There are many ways to improve on covering an event like the health care summit – and we hope there are a lot of lessons here for any nonprofit or advocacy group to use, no matter what issue a group may focus on. Already, we are looking to opportunities to hone the Sunlight Live model in the next few months as new opportunities pop up. Of great importance to us in the immediate-term is to get your feedback and ideas, so it means a lot to us to hear from you in the comments for this post.

As mentioned briefly above, some of the things you can undoubtedly expect from us before too long are more embeddable widgets to use in something like Sunlight Live which will allow anyone to pull data about members of government in real-time. We’re also going to be working on contextualizing of data with the political events of the day in general. In fact, one of the ideas that came to us through the feedback form we put up on the day of Sunlight Live is to host a “post game report” of sorts on the following day, to break down everything that happened as highlights, and connect additional government data to those high points. Might have to give that one a go…

Note: Post updated on 3/10/2010 with updated stats. – Noah Kunin, Multimedia Content Producer

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  • Congrats Sunlight for winning the Knight Award—seems well-deserved from what I’m reading here.

    Thanks to you and the whole team for compiling and sharing this excellent summary of your efforts. It really provides a great roadmap for those seeking to implement some of your innovative strategies in our own work.

  • Anonymous

    @Prokofy Neva: Are you the ranter Prokofy Neva who is mentioned at http://secondlife.wikia.com/wiki/Prokofy_Neva

  • Thanks for taking the time to write this up, Jake. Being open about the behind-the-scenes process turned me on to a few new tools. Great job.

  • Michelle Costen

    Sent out emails and brought some awareness to others in my community about Sunlight, and some actually participated and shared their ideas during the health care summit and were glad to have this website announced and made available to them-

    Sunlight Foundation will be very successful in creating a transparent government, as this is truly a good and right idea- A good idea that will bring more good ideas—–

  • sandy

    It was brilliant. I watched it for most of the summit, and tweeted its existence as well. Good show, Sunlight!

  • There’s a terribly dangerous meme at work here which is that the Sunlight Foundation represents “non-biased coverage”. It doesn’t. The Sunlight Foundation is a lefty technoutopian organization with an agenda that covers events in the way that fits that agenda. It’s one sort of coverage — it’s pretense that it represents “unbiased” coverage is not one that a Silicon Valley-big-IT funded project *cannot and should not claim*. It’s that hubris and that arrogance that means it is untrustworthy — and cannot be allowed to prevail by baking its agenda into the tools it creates.

    A good example is the way this coverage as well as the New York Times declared Lamar Alexander as “wrong” or “lying himself” or posturing for the constituents (when of course, they were all doing that). The fact is, the premiums *will indeed* go up. The CBO says that. Obama is indeed duplicitous in disclaiming this. What Sunlight, leftist Twitterers and the Times then do is claim that there is a context that will obtain — that people will be spending more because a) they will get more and b) they will be getting subsidies.

    But that’s ridiculous, as anyone practically involved in having to actually purchase health care, who has no insurance (like me), will tell you. You will pick what is cheapest, not what has more services. And you will not wait for a subsidy that might require lots of paperwork and be delayed in coming. How much subsidies? How much more in a plan? Those are all variables and unknowns, and the CBO or any other predictors cannot claim absolute “unbiased” knowledge on this.

    If you are getting coverage when you haven’t had it before, you will pick what is cheaper — period. And if that option isn’t there, and you are compelled to pay more, you won’t get it. Except, oops, you may be *fined* if you refuse to sign up for coverage, instead of buying health care on an “as-needed” basis as you did before.

    Already the Freelancers’ Union in Brooklyn, for example, is messaging the downside of the Obama care plan, because it means freelancers who formerly simply paid for each health cost separately, or purchased group insurance with their plan or similar plans, will now face *rising* costs. And this is a labour group, that isn’t some Blue Dog or right-wing Republican group.

    The reality is, if you cover more people, costs will go up. You cannot hide that. And the leftist coverage of this debate keeps spinning it with these artificial “contexts”.

  • This was the piece I put on my blog about your coverage. Also posted your coverage on Facebook and Twitter. Glad to help, although my audience is rather small. It was picked up on by my more political friends who have hundreds of connections and spread quickly throughout my network, though. ;^)

  • Great piece and a fantastic job on the conference — I’ve forwarded this to several business friends as something they need to think about and implement.

  • There were some visualization links included in the live blog. Some, like the Baucus Health Care Lobbyist Complex were pre-existing, while others were generated on the fly, like Chuck Grassley’s connections to the Health Care lobbyists as well as the Wordles and Twitter Streamgraphs

  • Love the time lapse video! Thanks for this debriefing. It’s definitely useful. Didn’t know of Chartbeat. BTW, Woot.com had a great deal on Tim Ball’s the other day… ;p