OpenGov Voices: Visualizing campaign finance data like never before


For more than a year, with the help of an OpenGov Grant from the Sunlight Foundation, I’ve been building a visualization system to explore who gives money to politicians. I recently came out with a Kickstarter campaign for the visualization system, which is built but not yet launched. With the presidential election coming up in 2016, more people than ever are interested in campaign finance, inspiring me to create a tool to make it easier to understand.

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One of the cool things about data is that there are countless ways it can be viewed and organized to tell a story. There are a number of great tools online for exploring campaign finance data, but within the past few years people have created new programming libraries that make it easier than ever before to build visualization systems online. I was interested in experimenting with these tools to tell a new type of story about where politicians raise money.

I wanted to try exploring campaign finance for individual politicians on both the micro- and macro-levels. On the macro side, I was interested in creating some big picture views of how a politician raised money, offering users more context than they would normally receive. Then, on the micro-level, I wanted people to be able to dig as deeply into the details as they wanted.

On the big picture side of the visualization, I wanted to give a lot of context to the raw fundraising numbers users would traditionally see from a politician. Here you can see exactly how much money a politician raised each year, and from which sectors they raised it.

You can click on any election cycle to change the legend to that cycle, and you can see this fundraising data from individuals, PACs or both combined.

Click on any sector and you can see the subsectors that combine to make up that larger sector. In this case, you can see that the financial sector is made up of eight different subsectors, some of which were large contributors and some of which were comparatively minor.

Through these big-picture views, you can gain a great deal of high-level context about how much money a politician raises, and the industries from which they are raising that money. However, the problem with being limited to the big-picture view is that when you find something interesting, you can’t learn more about it. Using Explore Campaign Finance, users have the ability to dig deeper. You can click on any legend item to see the companies and PACs that make up that total, and then, going all the way down to the raw data, you can see the individuals from those companies who made the donations. For example, in the chart above, you might notice that the politician raises a lot more money from the financial industry now compared to the 1998 and 2000 election cycles. Which companies make up that increase? Which individuals are making these donations? With this tool, it’s possible to visualize this data. A groundbreaking visualization of who gives money to federal politicians. The next problem with tools like this is that people use them and find out fascinating things about their politicians, but then those insights get lost, because there is no effective way for those people to share what they discover with others.

So, for this project, we’re building in a way for people to submit all the interesting facts they find out about a politician, and we’ll list their discoveries on that politician’s page for the world to see. This data will be useful for voters, journalists or even the politicians themselves.

This project is launching with data from, which has over 25 years of federal campaign finance data for more than 24,000 politicians. Obviously, it’s too much work for one person to research all of these politicians. I’m hoping that with the help of the Internet, we can crowdsource campaign finance research for every single politician in the database.

For the last 25 years, these politicians have never expected us to actually find much in this data, and I’m extremely excited to dig up dirt on things that politicians thought we would have long forgotten by now. If you’re excited about this project, and want to contribute, the Kickstarter campaign will be running for a few more weeks. The project will be open source, so you can contribute code as well, or stick this system on top of data from your state or country!

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