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Open Source, Open Gov, Open House

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Hopefully all of you know this already (you are subscribed to the Labs Google Group, right? And following us on Twitter? And on our general Sunlight mailing list and maybe watching our office windows from across the street in case we write something important on a whiteboard? Good.). But if not: we're having an open house! It's this Thursday, it's happening at 6pm, and it would be great if you could make it. We'll have some drinks, some videogames, and some in-progress projects to demo. You just need to bring your charming self.

What: Sunlight Labs Open House
When: Starts at 6 pm on Thursday, September 23rd, 2010
Where: 1818 N Street Suite 300 NW Washington DC

If you can manage an RSVP, we'd appreciate it (but if you can't, that's fine, too).

Hope to see you Thursday!

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Carrots and Sticks

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The response to Clearspending has been overwhelmingly positive. People seem to care about government spending data quality to an extent I never would have anticipated. It's encouraging, and it makes me think we have a real shot at getting these problems fixed.

But there are some people with a different perspective. One of them is Gunnar Hellekson, who wrote a thoughtful blog post about why he disagrees with our approach. Naturally I don't plan to write responses to everyone who disagrees with us. But we really like and respect Gunnar, and he raised some important points in his post. To wit:

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Announcing Clearspending — and Why It’s Important

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Clearspending logo

Today we're launching Clearspending -- a site devoted to our analysis of the data behind USASpending.gov. Ellen's already written about this project over on the main foundation blog, and you should certainly check out her post. But I wanted to talk about it a little bit here, too, because this project is near & dear to my heart, having grown out of work that Kaitlin, Kevin and I did together before I stepped into the role of Labs Director.

The three of us had been working with the USASpending database for a while, and in the course of that work we began to realize some discouraging things. The data clearly had some problems. We did some research and wrote some tests to quantify those problems -- that effort turned into Clearspending. The results were unequivocal: the data was bad -- really bad. Unusably bad, in fact. As things currently stand, USASpending.gov really can't be relied upon.

You can read all about it over at the Clearspending site, and I hope you will -- in addition to an analysis that looked at millions of rows of data and found over a trillion dollars' worth of messed-up spending reports, we spent a lot of time talking to officials at all levels of the reporting chain. I don't think you're likely to find a better discussion of these systems and their problems.

And make no mistake, these systems are important.

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The Health 2.0 Developer Challenge

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the Health 2.0 Developer Challenge 2010 logoThe Health 2.0 Developer Challenge launched last week, and I've been embarrassingly remiss at mentioning it. Hopefully, many of you are already in the loop and excited about the project. Let me take a second and fill the rest of you in.

There are a lot of app contests and hackathons and dev challenges around these days. But I think this is one worth getting excited about, for three reasons.

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Elena’s Inbox: How Not to Release Data

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screenshot of elenasinbox.com

On Friday @BobBrigham tweeted a suggestion: put the just-released Elena Kagan email dump into a GMail-style interface. I thought this was a pretty cool idea, so I started hacking away at it over the weekend. You can see the finished results at elenasinbox.com.

I'm really pleased that people have found the site useful and interesting, but the truth is that a lot of the emails in the system are garbage: they're badly-formatted, duplicative or missing information. For instance, one of the most-visited pages on the site is the thread with the subject "Two G-rated Jewish jokes" -- understandably, given that it's the most potentially-scandalous-sounding subject line on the first page of results. Unfortunately, if you click through you'll see that there's no content in the messages.

The site was admittedly a bit rushed, but in this case it isn't the code that's to blame. If you go through the source PDF, you'll see that the content is missing there, too. It looks like it might have been redacted, but the format of the document is confusing enough that it's difficult to be sure.

But the source documents' problems go beyond ambiguous formatting. A lot of the junky content on the site comes from the junk it was built from -- there's not much we can do about it. To give you some idea of the problem, consider these strings:

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Hello, Labs

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Like Clay said, I'm the new guy. Well, not entirely new -- I've been at Sunlight since late 2008. But I'm the one who's going to be trying to fill the enormous gap he's leaving. I thought I'd start to explain how I want to do that by talking about how I arrived at Sunlight.

I first became aware of the Sunlight Foundation while working as a programmer at a consultancy here in DC, building sites for large nonprofits and dabbling with using and writing about various technologies on the side. When I heard about Sunlight Labs, I thought it was pretty much the coolest thing in the world. Technologists using their skills to directly improve society. For people like me (and probably you) -- people who have acquired a technical skillset that's powerful, in a sense, but not always obviously useful -- it's an incredibly compelling prospect.

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