July 2012 Labs Update


Labs Update took a break last month to attend the Personal Democracy Forum in New York where we launched two new projects and ate delicious Chinese delicacies. Read on to find out all of the work that we’ve been doing over the past two months.

As you head to your late July watermelon festivals, I hope you’ll keep us in mind.


Scout is our new alert service that monitors state and federal legislation, regulations, and RSS feeds for keywords and recent activity. You can get updates via SMS or email so that you are always up to date on the subjects in which you have an interest. Users can create and publish collections of alerts on particular topics such as the Freedom of Information Act or smoked meats.

Scout is powered by the Real Time Congress, Open States, and Capitol Words APIs. If you have a Sunlight API key you can see the exact API queries and responses that are used to power your search results.

Call on Congress

Call on Congress is a free telephone service that helps you find out how your representatives are voting on bills and raising campaign money. You can also be connected with your lawmakers’ Capitol Hill offices or get details on where to vote on Election Day.

The project started as part of Sunlight Olympics, an internal hack day where people from different departments form teams to work on new project ideas. Sunlight provides vast amounts of information about government to people with access to the internet, but we haven’t done much to reach those without computers. Call on Congress is our attempt to reach the other side of the digital divide.

Built on Twilio and Sunlight’s APIs, Call on Congress serves as an example of the type of applications that can be built using only our public data services.


Rounding out our new product launches is Politwoops which collects deleted tweets from people serving in government. Shortly after launching the service, several members of congress took to Twitter to incorrectly celebrate the unconstutionality of the individual mandate . However, not all deleted tweets have such important policy implications:

Zombie theme park planned for #Detroit #HellYeah

To meet the Twitter API Terms of Service, all deleted tweets shown since June 22, 2012 have been reviewed and approved for journalistic worthiness by our elite Politwoops Content Review Department. Politwoops is based on a project initially developed by the Open State Foundation.

Open States

Open States is nearing launch of their public site which will expose all of the data in the API in a nice web interface. The team has been busy finishing up the project, adding events, and working on data quality improvements.

Sign up to be notified when the new site launches in August.

Influence Explorer

With fresh data flowing from the FEC like condensation running from the air conditioners of DC in summer (I have no idea what that means), the Influence Explorer team has moved on to other exciting tasks. Alison is working on new views of data on the site. Ethan and Andrew are continuing to develop new tools around federal regulations. These will all be combined in a new stand-alone project that does several types of text analysis on regulatory comments, matches names, and does submitter aggregation.

Public Python Classes

Sunlight Labs does a lot of work in Python and has offered several Python classes to other members of staff over the past few years. Kaitlin is taking it one step further and is broadcasting this round of classes on Google Plus. The course is focused on people with no programming experience so this is a great opportunity to tune in and learn the basics of coding in Python.

Team Pulitzer

Jacob set up a system to allow regular folks to subscribe to Federal Election Commission alerts via Scout, and talked about it — as well as campaign finance and how journalists can do better mapping — at an Investigative Reporters and Editors conference. He’s also been looking into groups that don’t file with the FEC but do report their spending and various ways of tracking 501c4 spending.

Lee continued to talk about how Congressional speech has declined and started tracking dark money and Dodd-Frank participation.

Team PMP

Tom lent a hand to the Scout/Call On Congress demo at PdF and more recently helped line up support for a fun project involving soundprint technology. And he’s been trying to cross t’s and dot i’s on a new round of agreements with some upstream data providers, and to get the ball rolling on a few new grant applications. But mostly he’s just been whining about having a cold for the last five weeks. (See?! He just did it again!)


  • Tim has been dealing with repeated Amazon EC2 outages, disappearing EBS volumes, and compilers that would rather not compile C. His mom housed him and fed him beef noodles during the derecho power outage, so that’s a plus.
  • Daniel Cloud continues working on Political Ad Sleuth, a joint effort to collect and put TV station’s political documents (political ad purchases) online. In addition, he attended a Mozilla/Silverdocs hackathon for creating interactive video presentations with Popcorn.js.
  • Dan Drinkard has been forging ahead on major backend updates to Capitol Words, as well as working with our friends at Cubox to close out the last bits of functionality on the Datajam platform before public release. Not to be outdone by lesser Dans, he also attended the Mozilla/Silverdocs hackathon.
  • Eric, Andrew, and Alex are scraping the US Code classification tables… and the purpose of this is completely lost on me. You guys win this round of the policy wonk competition.
  • Caitlin has been working on an all new design for Party Time. Excellent. (Yep, I went for it. Don’t judge me.)
  • Amy has been working on design for the new regulations site, as well as new logos for Sunlight Live, News Without Transparency, and a new app to help you monitor who’s behind political ads you see.
  • When not coming up with new email aliases for herself, Kaitlin has been working on a press release API to power Churnalism US, as well as a Churnalism browser extension for Internet Explorer.
  • Drew has been repairing the Reporting Group’s Dodd-Frank scraper in preparation for the coming anniversary.
  • Andrew won the Fifth of July potluck with his homemade duck sausage and blackberry ketchup.
  • Paul spent the past two months deep in thought: