As stated in the note from the Sunlight Foundation′s Board Chair, as of September 2020 the Sunlight Foundation is no longer active. This site is maintained as a static archive only.

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Labs Olympics: The J Team


Unlike last year, I wasn't just a mere spectator of the Labs Olympics. I got to participate this year and take a couple days off from the usual watch-dogging we do here at the Sunlight Foundation. My team's goal was to take our combined skills of web development, research and story telling and create a product very different from the usual web applications and data tools we usually strive for.

I was lucky enough to be on a team with Daniel Cloud, Ethan Phelps-Goodman and Eric Mill. Originally, the four of us struggled to come up with a project that would be topical, technical and entertaining. After an extended brainstorming session where we considered projects surrounding campaign finance, the London riots and natural disasters around the world, we decided to create the ultimate data visualization using (drum roll, please) Jell-O! To be clear, our idea was not inspired by the London artists that sculpt things out of Jell-O. Our use of the jiggly substance was completely coincidental.

As we talked about what we could build and what would be of interest, we kept in mind that this year’s competition, unlike last year’s, was not limited to building applications. Our end result could be, and was encouraged to be, tangible. So when we considered mapping areas recently hit by earthquakes -- D.C., Denver and California (of course) -- it occurred to us that we should not only map those areas, but also make those maps dynamic by making them light up, and vibrate, too!. We investigated ways we could embed LED lights in a three dimensional Jell-O mold, and quickly ran into several obstacles. It looked like the Peggy 2 was going to be our LED board until we realized we’d have to solder 625 LEDs. Given the time and skill level that would require, it didn’t seem realistic. We then gave up on embedding LEDs in Jell-O and decided to go for the more obvious choice, a layer of Jell-O in the shape of the United States on top of a horizontally-oriented LCD monitor.

So it was set: we were going to use sophisticated mapping software new to all of us (especially me, since I’m not a developer) to map earthquake and other government data and then distract our audience entirely by putting a sticky mass of gelatin on the table and somehow, someway, make it jiggle on cue.

To create the underlying map visualizations we used the TileMill mapping stack from Development Seed. We collected dentist and diabetes data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to map the change in obesity rates over time and the number of dentists per capita. We mapped earthquake data using information from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

TileMill lived up to its promise of providing an easy to use complete solution for people with little experience mapping, as was true for most of us. Once the maps were designed we exported them to static images and displayed them as a slideshow.

Once the slideshow was created we chose a large monitor to display it on and wrapped the whole thing in Saran wrap. After we sculpted the states using Jello, we placed it on the protected monitor and displayed the maps we generated beneath the translucent dessert. When it came time to display the earthquake data, we had to resort to an over-sized neck massager to get the Jello to jiggle. Our early experiments involved installing vibration motors from a Play Station 3 controller into a layer of Jell-O. While it was definitely a sight to behold, we didn’t get the range of motion we had hoped for. Ultimately, making it shake was not an easy task.

The final product looked very much like an early prototype for a more sophisticated device, the one we had imagined in our planning phases. Perhaps intrepid tinkerers will take what we learned and build upon it to form something bigger, better and more delicious.

I’ll spare you all the suspense and let you know our team, the J-team, didn’t win. Keep checking this blog for a post by the winning team. Everyone who works in a office will appreciate their creativity and problem solving ability.

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HAMP helps few homeowners, but program continues


The current tumult in the nation’s economy—high unemployment, large federal deficits, a downgrade in the U.S. credit rating and the resultant gyrations of stock prices—stem from the collapse of the housing bubble in 2007 and 2008 and subsequent meltdown of financial markets. While government programs enacted as part of the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 propped up banks, brokerages and other firms—including auto manufacturers General Motors and Chrysler—the principal program to help homeowners has not fared nearly as well. HAMP logo In 2009, the Department of Treasury launched the Home Affordable Modification Program, or HAMP, to help ease the financial woes of three to four million Americans by adjusting mortgage rates to make their homes more affordable. The program provides an incentive to banks, giving them a predetermined amount for every modification completed. One of the goals of HAMP is to keep homes from being foreclosed upon, protecting local real estate markets from the declining prices that vacant, unsold homes can have on entire neighborhoods.

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Bills designed to alter or repeal Dodd-Frank


When Republicans took over the House after the mid-term elections in 2010, one of the first things on the agenda for some members was to alter or repeal the sweeping financial reform passed by the previous Congress.

In the year that has passed since H.R. 4173, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, was signed into law, there have been at least 12 bills proposed to alter or remove provisions from the law, with two of those bills proposing to repeal the legislation altogether. Rep. Michelle Bachmann, R-Minn., introduced the first of the two bills—H.R ...

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