Labs Update: September 2011


Summer vacation is over and it’s back to school. To make it even worse, it’s a rainy week here in DC. As you read, escape the end-of-summer-rainy-day doldrums by listening to the pop stylings of Ellie Goulding.

Labs Olympics

Rex the Cleanosaur

Continuing a tradition set by former Labs Director Clay Johnson, we recently held the second annual Labs Olympics, a two day coding sprint where teams can create any project they want. It’s a great opportunity to work with people you don’t normally interact with and get the creative juices flowing. This year’s projects were:

  • Rex the Cleanosaur by Team Awesome: An office kitchen duty management application.
  • How Is Babby by Labs Olympics Winners: A baby movement monitor powered by Microsoft Kinect.
  • Government Data in Jello by JTeam: Electronics visualization project turned Jell-O shot experiment.
  • Talk of the Town by Baby in a Straightjacket: Visuallizing words used in public meetings across the country.
  • Nice Neighbor by The Leaf Peepers: Help your community out by matching haves with needs.

Additional blog posts detailing each project are forthcoming.

Real Time Congress

Luigi and his Google Summer of Code student, Tom Tsai, have rewritten our Real Time Congress iOS app to be 100% native. The new app mirrors the functionality of the previous version, but new features are being added to make the app a bit more like Congress for Android.

The Real Time Congress API is getting full text search of bills from the 111th and 112th Congress. Eric is in the final stages of testing and should be launching the new API methods very soon. These changes are needed to support a real-time notifications app that is being developed. More news on that in the coming months.

Influence Explorer

Always with the productivity, that Influence Explorer team.

New data sets are here, thanks to Alison and Ethan! EPA violation data has been added to corporate entities in both Influence Explorer and the Data Commons API. Within the next month the team will be adding data from that shows corporate comments on proposed rules. Andrew also did a lot of work to make it easier to add new data sets to Influence Explorer profile pages.

When a politician has served at both the state and federal levels, IE has a profile page for each. While a bit confusing, this lets users see the difference in influences at the state and federal levels. These pages now have links to each other, making it easier to jump between the profiles. You will also find “revolving door” links between politician and lobbyist profile pages when a legislator has left public service to pursue a more lucrative career in lobbying.

Many of the IE profile pages have entity summaries that have been pulled from Wikipedia. You may have noticed a few hilarious instances where the summary was scraped from the wrong Wikipedia article, identifying a modern-day politician as a Founding Father. We’ve harnessed the human-power of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk to make these matches much more accurate. The results should be going live soon on

K2: A soon-to-be-named Knight mobile app

The second in our series of Knight Foundation-funded mobile apps uses financial data to help people find other cities where they might have a better chance of finding a job in their field and improving their quality of life. Ryan and I are working on the data side of the app; locating, loading, and processing the data sources. Design is being handled by Caitlin, who you may remember from the first Knight app, Sunlight Health.

Clear Spending

Kaitlin and Drew have updated Clearspending to run against new, and soon to be released, data. They’ve also been researching corporate identifiers. Drew has been working on an interactive visualization to show that Dun & Bradstreet numbers (DUNS) are not a reliable way to identify corporations and their subsidiaries in government data.

Capitol Words

Capitol Words logo

The new Capitol Words was pushed out for internal testing this week and it is looking good! The previous incarnation of the site only processed individual words, making the usefulness somewhat limited. The new version that Aaron and Caitlin have been working on includes phrases and other exciting features. Coming soon!

Open States API

It’s all manifest destiny up in Open States with the addition of New Mexico, Idaho, and Illinois. The team is hurtling towards their goal of all 50 states + DC early in 2012. They’ve also added new methods for dealing with districts and their geographic boundaries to the API. Grab an API key and check it out!

Good James Turk

James sitting with his mentor, Robin Williams

Okay, grab your handkerchiefs and take a seat, I’ve some bad news to announce. James Turk, one of the original members of Sunlight Labs, is leaving DC and moving to the greater Boston area. All is not lost as he will still be working remotely for Sunlight and continuing to run the Open States project. If everything goes as planned, James will even be hiring up in the area for Open States, making Boston the unofficial Sunlight North.

If you see him roaming the halls of MIT with Robin Williams, stop and say hello!


  • Earthquake!
  • Ali is back!
  • Dan is working on the 180° Project for the Reporting Group. We’re turning the cameras on the audience of public Congressional hearings to identify lobbyists and industry in the crowd.
  • Daniel has been continuing work on our new mobile game, Decipher DC. It’s like a guided tour of lobbying and scandal in DC, but in game form… and fun!
  • Sysadmin Tim has been working on various office network upgrades including the best wireless router (though I still can’t get wifi in the conference room) and our new 6TB NAS. By axing underused third-party services, Tim has cut our hosting bills by $1000 a month… the equivalent of 200 burritos!
  • Tom has been meeting with candidates for the data visualization fellowship and getting ready to make some “super fast” announcements at this Thursday’s Wolfram Data Summit.
  • Kaitlin has restarted our internal Python classes for non-developers.
  • Many thanks to ex-Sunlighter Kerry Mitchell for the fine Good Will Hunting Photoshop work he contributed to this post.

This post, if sent via SMS, would cost about $12. Absolutely ridiculous.