Today in OpenGov: The USA has fallen off the online ad disclosure cliff. Will it climb back up?


Fall is a busy time in the open government world. Read on for stories on the power of disclosure, President Trump's latest emoluments issue, fighting fraud while recovering from disaster, and much more. 

Time for Sunshine on Dark Ads


As Alex Howard and John Wonderlich explained in a new post, the "United States of America has now fallen off the online disclosure cliff that Sunlight has warned of for years: the lack of transparency for political ad spending and related activity online created a significant vulnerability in our public accountability laws."

It's time for "Facebook, Google, and other major platforms [to] be held to the same level of transparency as media companies, with a new disclosure requirement similar to longstanding requirements applied to the analog world."

We hope you'll read and share our post blog, exploring the full extent of the problem, highlighting current proposals for reform, and outlining the steps that government and tech companies can, and should, take. 

washington watch

  • Fighting fraud in the wake of Irma and Harvey is crucial."The last two major hurricanes to hit the United States—Katrina and Sandy—offered FEMA a wealth of lessons in how to manage the myriad fraud risks.," writes Linda Miller. "As FEMA prepares to dole out hundreds of millions in disaster relief, there are a few key considerations related to fraud that the agency would be wise to keep in mind." (Government Executive)
  • Help the Interior Department visualize Colorado river data! The United States Bureau of Reclamation wants to do more with the streams of data around the Colorado River Basin. We hope you'll check out their challenge on and suggest data visualizations! (FedScoop)
  • CDC wants to limit how much its employees talk to reporters, even to answer simple data questions. Sam Baker has an alarming scoop for Axios, reporting that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is "trying to crack down on its employees' conversations with the press, according to an internal email." The message, which Baker reports was sent by public affairs officer Jeffrey Lancashire on August 31, instructed all CDC employees not to speak to journalists, "even for a simple data-related question." without "approval from the CDC's central communications office in Atlanta." (AxiosOur take? This is bad for informing the public, scientists and erodes the agency's core mission of protecting prublic health. Limiting interactions with journalists around data will harm public knowledge and government accountability. The CDC should rescind the policy. 
  • The U.S. Supreme Court approved a controversial Texas voting districts. "A divided U.S. Supreme Court reinstated disputed congressional and state voting maps in Texas, blocking two lower court rulings that said the Republican-backed district lines were the product of racial discrimination." (Bloomberg)


  • Malaysian prime minister stays at Trump hotel during official visit, raising new emoluments questions. "The prime minister’s official White House visit also brought at least 24 hours of activity and sales to the glamorous 263-room hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue that Trump owns through a trust. And it is likely to escalate debate over whether the president is benefiting from a luxury property that has become Washington’s new power center — and, its critics say, a staging area for those seeking White House access." (Washington Post) We had to ask, did the Trump hotel host the prime minister and his delegation for free? If not, were emoluments paid to the US Treasury?  No word from the White House or the Trump Organization on this count. We'll be tracking this story, along with all of President Trump's other potential conflicts of interest. 
  • Former national security advisor Flynn backed a for-profit nuclear power plan during transition – but neglected to mention he took $25k from its backers. "As a top official in President Donald Trump’s transition team, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn actively promoted a private-sector scheme to build dozens of nuclear reactors across the Middle East known informally in the transition as the 'Marshall Plan.' But he did not publicly disclose that backers of the plan had paid him at least $25,000." (POLITICO)
  •  Reminder: "It's illegal under federal law to knowingly falsify or conceal relevant information from a security clearance form." And yet, the House Oversight Committee is deferring the special counsel on clearances. Our recommendations on ethics to House Oversight from February remain relevant: take preventative action today to ensure that the public does not see the reality of corruption in our federal government tomorrow. (CNN)
  • Meanwhile, Flynn is still refusing to appear as a witness before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Per an anonymous source cited by CNN, Flynn refused a new request. (CNN)
  • President Trump's relationship with India remains deeply conflicted with the Trump Organization. "India is a key U.S. ally in Asia and its rivalry with both Pakistan and China fosters many areas where Trump and Modi need each other—nuclear weapons, anti-terrorism, Afghanistan and trade, among others. So far, Trump doesn’t seem to have spared India in policies ranging from visas for technology workers to the Paris climate accord. Still, the risk that he might let his business interests outweigh national needs—or that Modi might cut him a break on taxes or permits in exchange for policy tweaks—remains a big concern for government ethics experts in the U.S." (Bloomberg)

states and cities

  • Keeping Chicago's beaches safe with an analytics-driven approach. "To ensure the safety of its beachgoers, [Chicago] piloted an analytical model last year to enhance beach water quality inspection processes conducted by the Chicago Park District. The model aimed to predict which beaches needed to be closed based on likely levels of E. coli, thus safeguarding the public with more timely advisories." Now, writes Sean Thornton, "the effort has matured into what’s become known as the Clear Water Project, a broader push to keep beaches safe through a combination of new water testing technologies, predictive modeling, and continued volunteer engagement." (Data-Smart City Solutions)
  • California Assembly wants more drug price transparency. "The California State Assembly on Monday overwhelmingly approved Senate Bill 17, controversial legislation that could soon become the nation’s most comprehensive law aimed at shining a light on prescription drug prices." (Government Technology)

save the dates

  • September 14th – 16th: Digital Humanities and Data Journalism Symposium, in Miami, Florida. [UPDATE: Due to Hurricane Irma the symposium has been canceled]"Digital humanists and data journalists face common challenges, opportunities, and goals, such as how to communicate effectively with the public. They use similar software tools, programming languages, and techniques, and they can learn from each other. Join us for lectures and tutorials about shared data types, visualization methods, and data communication — including text visualization, network diagrams, maps, databases and data wrangling. In addition to the scheduled content, there will be opportunities for casual conversation and networking."
  • September 19th, 1:00 pm EST: Tactical Data Engagement Kickoff Discussion, Webinar. Join the Sunlight Foundation for the official launch of Tactical Data Engagement, a guide to help cities facilitate the impactful use of open data by collaborating with communities. As part of the launch we’ll be hosting a kickoff conversation about the guide and the tactical engagement process. Join us on September 19 at 1 PM EDT for a free webinar. Hear from Sunlight's Open Cities experts, who have worked with dozens of cities on the ideas outlined in the guide. Participants are welcome and encouraged to bring questions about the ways open data could be used to help solve their own city's challenges. Register for the Webinar here
  • September 23rd: Populist Plutocrats, lessons from around the world, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "This one-day conference, co-sponsored by Harvard Law School and the Stigler Center, will focus on an important and dangerous political phenomenon: the “populist plutocrat.” The populist plutocrat is a leader who exploits the cultural and economic grievances of poorer, less-educated voters against traditional elites in order to achieve and retain power, but who, once in office, seem substantially or primarily interested in enriching him- or herself, along with a relatively small circle of family members, cronies, and allies." Learn more here
  • September 26th: Data Transparency 2017, in Washington, DC. Hosted by the Data Foundation, "Data Transparency 2017 is Washington's largest open data event, bringing together government leaders, transparency advocates, and the technology industry to explore how technology can transform government, compliance, and the private sector." Learn more and get your tickets here.
  • September 28th: Powering Sustainable Development with Access to Information, Paris, France. "The 'IPDCtalks' will be held to highlight and elaborate on the importance of Access to Information for all sustainable development efforts around the world. It will consist of a series of attractive and dynamic talks from global public leaders, top journalists, young intellectuals and community leaders. While some of the speakers will elaborate on the key role of Access to Information for the achievement of a particular Sustainable Development Goal, others will reflect on the essential role of Access to Information for our society and future." You can learn more on the event website. If you're interested, but can't attend the event will be broadcast live on the web.
  • September 28th – 30th: CityCampNC, Raleigh, North Carolina. "CityCampNC, part of NC Open Pass, is an annual event that brings citizens, public servants, academia, and businesses together to openly innovate and improve our communities in partnership with government." This year, Sunlight's Open Cities Director Stephen Larrick will be giving the keynote address at CityCampNC. Learn more and register to attend here
  • October 13th – 14th: 2017 FOI Summit, Nashville, Tennessee. "Music City USA becomes home for NFOIC, state FOI coalitions and open government advocates for the 2017 FOI Summit on Friday and Saturday, October 13-14, 2017.The National Freedom of Information Coalition (NFOIC) and our host, the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government will convene the annual summit at the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University." You can learn more and register here


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