Today in OpenGov: U.S. political geography, update on Sunlight Labs, analyzing Super PACs and securing open data


LABS LOVE, RETURNED: Over the past six weeks, we’ve heard from people all over the United States and the globe concerned about the future of the projects at Sunlight Labs. Today, we have an update on Sunlight Labs: not only is the open source code and open data is remaining online at Github and the Internet Archive, but a group of nonprofits have stood up for transparency. As we’ve detailed at the blog, ProPublica, the Marshall Project, Cornell Law School, the Center for Responsive Politics, the U.S. Commerce Department, and a new Open States project led by Sunlight alumni have all stepped up. The community that has adopted Open States needs your help: Please Donate Today and, if you can pitch in, take this volunteer survey. There’s also a project that still needs a home: if you’re interested in adopting Email Congress, please email Thank you to everyone who reached out!

New York Times map of USA political geography
[A map of USA political geography by the New York Times Upshot team.]

PRINT IS ALIVE: Just as there’s no way to deliver the interactivity of the 2016 Election Forecast offline, there’s no way to provide the experience of a big map on paper online. (Maybe virtual reality will get there, but not yet.) Today, Sunlight staff enjoyed poring over the detailed map of the political geography of the United States created by the staff of the New York Times’ data-driven blog, The Upshot. Sure, you can zoom in to the image, but if you’re anywhere near a newstand today, this is data-driven journalism worth paying to read.

SUPER PAC-KED FINALE: With Election Day a week away, Sunlight’s Libby Watson looked at spending by outside groups in the final stretch of the presidential campaign, from the chaotic super political action committees (PACs) supporting Donald Trump to the big spending super PACs supporting Hillary Clinton: “If the story of Donald Trump’s supporting super PACs is one of disarray and infighting with underwhelming financial results, the story of Hillary Clinton’s super PACs is one of total domination. Outside groups supporting Clinton have outspent Trump groups nearly two to one, and one group, Priorities USA, has been able to command record-shattering amounts of money. The situation couldn’t be more different than 2012, when groups supporting Romney drastically outspent those supporting Obama. Some of the big players from that election, like American Crossroads, are sitting out this round, largely thanks to Trump.”

WHY OPEN DATA: In writing about why ProPublica took over some projects from Labs, Scott Klein, the deputy managing editor, also articulated one of the clearest cases we’ve read for the importance of our work. 

As journalists we are big believers in government transparency. We count on it to do our work. For us, the story doesn’t end when transparency is achieved; it’s just getting to the good part.

Open data and civic tech are worthy notions, but without putting them to real-world use in the service of the needs of regular people, they never achieve their greatest potential: to empower all of us to hold powerful people and institutions to account, and to help us all make better decisions when we pick a doctor, take a vacation, elect a government, etc. Justice Brandeis’ second most famous quotation also very much applies: “the most important political office is that of private citizen.”

After Sunlight’s announcement that they were closing Labs, one commenter observed that “we’re in the open-data backlash phase now. Open data hasn’t lived up to its hype (how could it?) and everyone’s asking what the point is.” To me, Labs always understood “what the point is,” and made that point clear through their great work. We’re sad to see Sunlight Labs shut down, but we remain convinced of the power of data to help regular people scrutinize their government, live better lives, and to understand their world.


  • The Brennan Center released a new report on election spending in 2016, finding that outside groups are outspending candidates and parties in key Senate races. “For what may be the first time, outside groups — nominally independent spenders that are free from contribution limits and can sometimes conceal their donors from the public — are outspending the parties and candidates in ten key U.S. Senate races, according to this new analysis based on FEC data. While closely tied to the parties and candidates despite weak rules against coordination, these groups benefit from being able to raise most of their money from a handful of mega-donors. The analysis also finds outside spending reaching record highs, a disproportionate amount of it benefiting Republican candidates, and an increasing concentration of dark money among a few big outside groups.” [Brennan Center]
  • A newly published email hacked from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s personal email account showed that he signed a $7,000/month contract with the Sandler Foundation, which was started by a major Clinton donor. [Politico]
  • The @FBIRecordsVault shared a new update at noon today: a link to heavily redacted records from an FBI investigation into the pardon of financier Marc Rich by President Bill Clinton in 2001. While it’s likely that the documents are responsive to a Freedom of Information Act request, Josh Gerstein reports that “spokespeople for the FBI and the Justice Department did not immediately respond to questions about whether there were any lawsuits seeking the newly posted material or whether a judge had set a deadline for its disclosure.”  [Politico]
  • In Slate, Franklin Foer reported that the Trump Organization has a secret server that communicates with Russia. IT security expert Rob Graham took a close look at the claims in the narrative, however, and concluded that “what we see here is a normal messed up marketing (aka. spam) system that the Trump Organization doesn’t have control over.” [Errata Sec]
  • As part of its report on the FBI’s investigation of Russian ties to Donald Trump, the New York Times reported that the FBI “ultimately concluded that there could be an innocuous explanation, like a marketing email or spam, for the computer contacts.” On a broader scale, the Times reported that “Law enforcement officials say that none of the investigations so far have found any conclusive or direct link between Mr. Trump and the Russian government. And even the hacking into Democratic emails, F.B.I. and intelligence officials now believe, was aimed at disrupting the presidential election rather than electing Mr. Trump.” [NYT]
  • David Corn reported, however, that a veteran U.S. spy gave the FBI credible information regarding a Russian operation to cultivate Trump. [Mother Jones]
  • Separately, the New York Times reported that Trump used a legally dubious method to avoid paying millions in federal taxes called a “stock-for-debt swap.” Congress banned stock-for-debt swaps by corporations in 1993 and equity-for-debt swaps by partnerships in 2004. [NYT]
  • All that said, it’s certainly fair to say that Trump’s tax returns could tell us more about his dealings with Russia. [Politico]
  • CNN fired interim Democratic National Committee chairwoman Donna Brazile after a second email hacked from Podesta’s account showed she’d tipped the Clinton campaign prior to a primary debate. Jack Shafer uses the moment to argue that the “whole show-business concept that places paid partisan yakkers on television is corrupt and venal and deserves burial in a shallow grave.” [Politico]
  • At times, Election 2016 has felt like virtual reality, or at least an alternative one. If you’re into experiencing coverage on NBC’s “Virtual Democracy Plaza,” now you can do so. [NBC News]



  • After measuring the impact of open data policies, a preliminary quantitative analysis by Sunlight fellows Wenjia Xie and Joyce Xie suggests that “cities with open data policies that follow more of Sunlight’s guidelines also tend to do a more successful job at implementation.” [READ MORE]
  • Breaking with tradition, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner has not disclosed his personal income taxes this year prior to Election Day, nor confirmed to the public that he will do so. Once a presidential nominee breaks an established norm, other candidates will follow. That means legislatures at the state and federal level will need to consider reforming open government laws. [Politico]


  • At yesterday’s Open Data Institute Summit, professor Nigel Shadbolt called on governments to think of open data as vital public infrastructure that needs protection. On that count, World Wide Web creator Tim Berners-Lee warned of the need to protect the accuracy and integrity of open data feeds. [Guardian]
  • Dan Sheldon, digital strategy lead at the United Kingdom’s Department of Health, published a massive “government IT self-harm playbook” in which he lists out the things that governments really should avoid doing.” Recommended, but carve out some time to work through it. (An estimated 34 minutes.) [Medium]
  • France is experimenting with better food labels. We hope they share the results! [Bloomberg]
  • The World Bank is now publishing open data on project results. Data analysts, start your engines. [World Bank]


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