Sunlight Labs update: Nonprofits step up to preserve tools for transparency


Five weeks ago, I promised that we would strive to close down Sunlight Labs efficiently, responsibly and transparently. I stated that we would, where possible, work with our friends and partners to construct viable futures for existing projects. And I clarified that our primary goal was to ensure that Labs’ products are available to everyone freely and equally in a useful format. We’re well on our way to achieving those goals, and I’m pleased to provide an update today on future plans for our existing projects.

(This is a long post, folks. Buckle up.)

The following federal legislative tools will be adopted by ProPublica, an independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest:

The following campaign finance tools will be adopted by the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to producing and disseminating data and analysis on money in politics.

The Marshall Project, a nonpartisan, a nonprofit news organization that covers the U.S. criminal justice system, will adopt Hall of Justice, our searchable inventory of almost 10,000 publicly-available criminal justice datasets and research.

The Department of Commerce will officially adopt Sunlight’s Python wrapper for the Census API.

The Open States website and API will be adopted by a group of Sunlight Labs alumni, who will initially run it on a volunteer basis while they determine a more sustainable path forward. The Open States group will be led by James Turk, who – years ago – dreamed up an audacious, impossible project: to bring legislative information from all 50 states into one free, open source API that anyone could use. James drove that project to completion, and then supervised its continuation for years. Open States is by far the most complicated and costly technological project that Sunlight runs. James and his band of merry devs know the challenges and opportunities it presents better than anyone, and they will bring expertise and commitment to its next iteration.

Finally, Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute plans to develop and launch a successor to Docket Wrench, a tool Sunlight built to uncover influence and similarities in federal regulatory comments.

We are still looking for a home for Email Congress, a service that allows constituents to email their congressional representatives directly rather than going through webforms. If you would be interested in adopting Email Congress, please email us at

Sunlight will retire Real-Time Influence Explorer and Political Ad Sleuth after Election Day on Nov. 8. We will also retire Scout, our notification system.  

Some principles apply to all adoptions, regardless of the product or the adopting organization:

  1. Our projects are open source. All of our partners have committed to keeping them open source. Sunlight will be prominently credited in “About” pages and in open source documentation as the creator of each project.
  2. Our projects were built through community efforts and nonprofit, public interest grants that funded staff at Sunlight. We have not sought, nor have we requested, any payment for any of our tools. We are also not providing financial assistance to the organizations that are taking these projects on. All of our partners are nonprofit organizations. If you believe in this work, and you want to support it, PLEASE DONATE to these organizations OR CONTRIBUTE to the projects in the future, whether through pull requests on GitHub or other volunteer work.
  3. Adoptions and transfers will begin immediately, take place on a rolling basis, and be completed by Nov. 10, when Bill Hunt and I depart Sunlight. A “complete” transfer implies that a project will no longer reside on Sunlight servers, and that the adopting organization will possess domain names, social media accounts, design assets, GitHub repos, all intellectual property rights, and all the documentation and advice and support we’ve been able to collect. It doesn’t imply that projects will be able to run without interruption, or that each project will continue to look or feel exactly the way it did when Sunlight maintained it.
  4. Amazon Web Services has offered to provide cloud infrastructure, credits and other assistance to organizations that are adopting Labs products to help with the initial costs of adoption. We’ll be working with AWS and the adopting organizations to determine what’s needed and assist in that process.
  5. Projects that are being adopted will be transferred off the Sunlight Labs GitHub repo and into the adopting organization’s repo. Our work with GitHub and the Internet Archive to save and store all of Sunlight’s projects and data is ongoing, and our permanent GitHub repo will still house any projects that were not retired. This reflects our commitment not only to finding viable futures for our current projects, but also our commitment to making ten years of open source efforts available to everyone freely and equally in a useful format.

As many in our community know, taking on someone else’s open source project is akin to adopting a pet. It’s an act of love, and it’s likely to be messy while everyone figures out how to make things work day to day. We have offered all of the adopting organizations the opportunity to publish their plans for these tools on our blog, and we expect they’ll be filling everyone in as they can. We will also provide updates and additional information over the next few weeks. In the meantime, you can still tweet us questions with the hashtag #sunlabslove or email us at, and we’ll try to answer any specific questions you might have.