Scout: Sunlight’s New Custom Alert Service


An image of the information feeds from Capitol Hill connecting to citizens and their various devices.A core mission of the Sunlight Foundation is to enable citizen participation through technology and lower the bar to access government. Through our free tools we’re constantly looking for ways to produce a more transparent and accountable government. Today, we’re proud to introduce Scout, a tool that allows you to create customized keyword alerts to notify you whenever issues you care about are included in legislative or regulatory actions. This project embodies our goals as an organization: anyone can now freely get the immediate access to information that previously required significant organizational capacity in your state capital or Washington, D.C.

Start by entering a keyword or phrase you would like to get updates about. Scout then saves your subscriptions and sends notifications via email or text message whenever the subscribed issue or bill is talked about in Congress, mentioned in the Federal Register or comes up in state legislation. Through your profile you can create as many alerts as you’d like and group them by tags with the additional option to make them public for others to follow your issues. Users can also complement a Scout subscription by adding optional external RSS feeds, such as press releases from a member of Congress or an issue-based blog.

One of our inspirations to create Scout was to help track when new exemptions were proposed to the Freedom of Information Act. We created a collection of alerts on the topic and anyone interested in the issue can get alerts along with our staff.

Not only has Scout proved useful in tracking issues in Sunlight’s policy advocacy, but we’ve already used it to help change proposed laws. We used our alert for the phrase “552 of title 5,” created to track newly proposed exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act, to alert expert allies on Freedom of Information about an overly broad exemption. Very quick work among a variety of staff, especially, led to a sign-on letter, thoughtful feedback to Congressional staff, and eventually, a much better bill. We conceived of Scout with just this kind of work in mind. Our assumption is that timely, focused updates on specific issues can help public scrutiny lead to better policy. With the recent FDA bill’s FOIA exemption, this was certainly the case.

Our rapid alert system is built on a foundation of strong data including our Capitol Words site that indexes the Congressional Record, legislative text and summary information from GPO and GovTrack, full text search of bills in all 50 states (a first) from our Open States project, notices on upcoming floor debates and regulatory filings included in the Federal Register. It’s an ambitious undertaking, but we’re excited to bring together all these important sources to provide you the most comprehensive alert system yet.

Visit Scout to watch a video about how the tool can work for you and please join us on Tuesday, June 26 for a webinar about Scout from 1 to 2 pm ET. The session will cover basic skills such as search terms and bill queries as well as advance functions such as tagging subscriptions, merging outside RSS feeds and curating search collections.

Our in-house developers at Sunlight Labs built Scout with generous support from the Stanton Foundation. Its code is open source and reusable and also provides a developer mode for advanced users. The site utilizes a number of Sunlight APIs including: Capitol Words, Real Time Congress and Open States. Read more about the data behind Scout here.