Those of you who were computer science majors in college may have belonged to your school’s student chapter of the ACM (Association for Computing Machinery). If you were a dues paying member, you likely received their quarterly magazine XRDS (called Crossroads when I was a student).
The latest issue of XRDS is themed around “CS in Service of Democracy”, and I’ve contributed an article about Sunlight Labs to the issue. If you’re able to get a copy, you’ll also find articles by friends of Sunlight like Josh Tauberer of GovTrack and POPVOX, and Harlan Yu and Stephen Schultze, who built RECAP.
My article is reprinted below.
Sunlight Labs is the software development arm of the Sunlight Foundation, a non-profit, non-partisan organization based in Washington, D.C. Sunlight focuses on government transparency: the idea that government can be more effective, more honest, and more accountable when it makes data about its processes, operations, and influences available to the public. Our work revolves around opening up government data and then building useful applications on top of that data. We like to call this civic hacking, and we’re nurturing a growing community of software developers around these ideas.
Open data has become a movement in its own right. Whether data comes from the government, a for-profit corporation, or a non-profit organization, it’s clear that there’s plenty of value to be derived from freely available public datasets. At Sunlight, one of our earliest contributions to the open data movement was the Congress API. The API is RESTful, speaks XML and JSON, and is freely available for use, even by commercial entities. The service provides endpoints for obtaining basic biographical and contact information on Members of Congress, committee assignments, and Congressional district lookups.
An API that does one thing and does it well can encourage an ecosystem of innovation. Sunlight launched an application development contest called Apps for America in early 2009. The ground rules were simple: first, create an app using an API or dataset provided by Sunlight or one of our partner organizations. Second, release that app as open source software. Winning apps included Filibusted, a site that tracks which U.S. Senators filibuster the most, and Know Thy Congressman, a browser-based bookmarklet that adds context to news articles about Members of Congress.
These examples of civic apps built on top of open government data did not go unnoticed by those inside government. In the middle of 2009, the Obama administration launched Data.gov, a catalog of datasets generated by the executive branch of the federal government. Buoyed by the success of the first contest, Sunlight launched Apps for America 2: The Data.gov Challenge. Even after just a few months since its launch, app developers already had several hundred datasets from Data.gov to choose from.
One of the winning entries in Apps for America 2 was called GovPulse. It took a daily government publication known as the Federal Register and made it more accessible to the public. Every day, the federal government needs to communicate to the public new and updated rules, regulations and notices, and it does so through a publication called the Federal Register. The developers behind GovPulse – three friends living in San Francisco – found the daily XML dump of the Federal Register on Data.gov and decided to give it a modern twist. In addition to making entries available in an easy-to-use Web interface, GovPulse incorporates graphical flourishes like sparklines of agency activity and interactive maps.
Several months after the launch of GovPulse, the team was contacted by staffers from the Office of the Federal Register (OFR). The OFR was interested in bringing on board the GovPulse team to work as contractors on a new, official website for the Federal Register. A few months later, FederalRegister.gov 2.0 was launched to wide acclaim, and has since begun offering a freely available RESTful API of its own. It remains one of the best success stories to come out of the Sunlight Labs community.
Building a thriving developer community is a major goal of Sunlight, and no single project has had more community success than the Open State Project. It provides an API and bulk downloads for state-level legislative information: legislative text, legislator information, vote history, and committee assignments. Currently, all 50 state legislatures make their data available online in some format. But 50 different states means 50 different formats, which means unique import scripts must be written for each state. This is far more work than the small staff of Sunlight Labs could accomplish on its own, so a nationwide community of volunteer contributors has been cultivated to assist in this effort. Many contributors maintain the necessary code for their own state.
Much of the work at Sunlight focuses on government transparency and accountability, particularly the influence of money in politics. How are political campaigns funded? Where are earmarks going? Who wins government contracts? Such questions can be answered with data, but that data has traditionally been hard to find and use. One of Sunlight’s largest projects is called Transparency Data, a central resource for data about campaign contributions, earmarks, lobbying activity, and government contracts and grants.
An incredibly comprehensive data source, Transparency Data has spawned several web apps built by Sunlight. Influence Explorer puts an easy-to-use interface on top of that complex dataset. Poligraft takes a news article or blog post and analyzes it to find the connections between the politicians, corporations, organizations, and donors mentioned in the piece. Checking Influence anonymously and securely examines your banking statements in order to give you a report of how the companies you do business with wield political influence. And Inbox Influence takes the same idea and applies it to your Gmail inbox.
Sunlight Labs, as the name suggests, puts a priority on technical experimentation. We’ve built several apps for cutting-edge platforms. Recently, we announced a new web service called the Real Time Congress API that exposes artifacts about Congress in as close to real time as is technically feasible. On top of this API, we built an iOS app called Real Time Congress, as well as an Android app simply called Congress. An HTML5 app called Stream Congress was released in conjunction with the launch of the Google Chrome Web Store. And we recently launched three Roku apps focusing on video and audio streams from the White House, Congress, and the Supreme Court. All projects are available for free in their respective app stores.
More about Sunlight Labs can be found at sunlightlabs.com, which contains links to our APIs, datasets, and source code.
About the Author: Luigi Montanez, a graduate of Georgia Tech, is a software developer at Sunlight Labs. He has spoken at numerous developer conferences and has contributed to HTML5Rocks.com.
© ACM, 2011. This is the author’s version of the work. It is posted here by permission of ACM for your personal use. Not for redistribution. The definitive version was published in XRDS, Volume 18 Issue 2, Winter 2011. http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/2043236.2043247