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Sunlight Foundation
Washington, DC

The Sunlight Foundation uses technology and ideas to make government transparent and accountable.

The Sunlight Foundation is:

A think-tank that develops and encourages new policies inside the government to make it more open and transparent.
A campaign to engage citizens in demanding the policies that will open government and hold their elected officials accountable for being transparent.
An investigative organization that uses the data we uncover to demonstrate why we need new policies that free government data.
A grant-giving institution that provides resources to organizations using technology to further our mission and create community
An open source technology community that revolves around the Sunlight Foundation’s core mission

Sunlight Foundation is not verified as a 501(c)3 organization.

Latest News

Aug 28, 2015

A pile of hundred dollar bills
(Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

We've been saying that this election will be BYOB — "bring your own billionaire" — but for Donald Trump, it's more like "BE your own billionaire."

Trump has pledged to self-finance, and so far he has loaned $1.8 million of his own money to his campaign. He's received just $100,000 in contributions from other donors.

In an election that's expected to top $10 billion, it will be interesting to watch if Trump really does deliver on funding his own campaign. By self-financing, he’d avoid many of the rules other candidates have to follow. For instance, while other candidates are subject to campaign finance laws restricting their coordination with super PACs, the Trump campaign can be its own super PAC — meaning Trump can continue to run his campaign the way he wants without any needing outside input.

But being able to fund your own campaign hasn’t really helped presidential candidates in the past. We flipped through old campaign finance reports to find some of the largest self-financing presidential spenders:

  • In 1992, businessman Ross Perot spent a whopping $64 million (about $107 million in 2015 dollars) of his own money running as an Independent. The following election, Perot again campaigned for the White House; that cycle, however, he only chipped in $8.2 million (about $12.4 million in 2015 dollars).
  • Mitt Romney spent $44.7 million on his failed primary run in the 2008. Seemingly learning from that lesson, he only gave around $52,000 to his campaign in 2012.
  • Steve Forbes spent $37.4 million (about $56 million in 2015 dollars) on his failed 1996 presidential bid. The very next election, he personally poured in $38.7 million (about $53 million in 2015 dollars) — with the same result.
  • In 2008, Hillary Clinton gave her campaign $13.2 million of her own money before losing to Barack Obama.
  • One of Romney's opponents in the 2012 GOP primary, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, notably proclaimed that he would not self-fund his bid for the presidency. But he quickly changed his tune, pouring in $5.4 million of his own money into the ultimately unsuccessful attempt.
  • Rudy Giuliani contributed $1.1 million to his 2008 presidential run.
  • Already in the 2016 cycle, Jeb Bush has given his own campaign $388,000. Bush actually deposited this money before he was a declared candidate, using the funds for "testing the waters activities."
  • Herman Cain spent $275,000 from his own bank account in the 2012 primary.

What do all of these people have in common? None of them have taken up residency at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (barring Bush's result in this year's contest). On the other hand, the Donald’s net worth is likely much larger than previous candidates. We'll have to wait and see if Election 2016 turns out any differently.

Aug 27, 2015

(Photo credit: Justin Grimes/Flickr)

Voting records, so long as they don’t personally identify the people voting, should be public records to ensure the validity of elections. They provide valuable checks and balances for our electoral process. That’s why we here at the Sunlight Foundation are watching a lawsuit playing out in Kansas involving electronic voting machines.

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, R, has asked a judge in Wichita to block the release of voting machine paper tapes from the November 2014 election, according to a report by the Associated Press.

Wichita State University statistician Beth Clarkson is seeking the records — which do not contain any personally identifiable data — to analyze statistical aberrations she discovered in electronic voting machines.

In June, her research was published in StatsLife and includes analysis of the 2012 Ohio presidential race, the 2014 Wisconsin governor’s race and the 2014 Kansas Senate race. She found the results showed anomalies that tended to favor Republicans.

Clarkson emphasized that the results don’t definitively prove fraud, though the results of her analysis are what statisticians would likely see if someone had tampered with the voting machines. She stated that there could be other explanations for the patterns. For that reason, she would like to perform an audit.

Her home county, Sedgwick County, provided a unique opportunity: Unlike many places using electronic voting machines, Sedgwick County still kept paper records. She told the Lawrence Journal World newspaper she thought the hard part would be doing the computations, not obtaining the records from her county.

However, election officials there told her the records were not available under Kansas' Open Records Act. In addition, they told her that the records would be impossible to reproduce because each roll is about 385 feet long and stored in 42 boxes, with each vote taking up around 27.5 inches of paper. The votes are also not segregated by precinct or voting district.

Clarkson filed a lawsuit for the records earlier this year.

Just last week, Secretary of State Kobach filed a legal challenge to the suit. It states the records are sealed by state statute and that he is not the custodian of the records. It also points out Clarkson filed a similar lawsuit for the paper records in 2013 and was denied access to the paper trail. The judge ruled that the records, even though they did not contain personally identifiable information, were still ballots.

Several newspapers in Kansas, from Winfield to Kansas City, have asked for the records to be released in the interest of transparency. Kobach has previously responded to their opinion pieces with his own op-ed stating that the Kansas Open Records Act does not allow for the release of ballots. He believes that Kansas’ law requires that ballots be kept secret even if names and other identifying information are redacted.

Kobach has been a vocal advocate of voter ID laws to prevent voter fraud. In 2011, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, R, signed a law requiring voters to present a picture ID when casting a vote to prove U.S. citizenship.

Clarkson’s research certainly raises questions warranting additional investigation — and without those records, questions linger. In the interest of transparency and to calm fears from voters still wary about electronic voting machines, this paper trail should be open for inspection.

Aug 26, 2015

President Obama on extending the PIF program: "These fellows are helping us upgrade the way Americans interact with their government online."

Great news for the world of civic tech: Last week, President Barack Obama signed an executive order that makes the Presidential Innovation Fellows (PIF) program a permanent staple of the federal government.

Operating since 2012, the PIF program recruits engineers, designers, entrepreneurs and other innovators to team up with federal employees, with the goal of improving programs and agencies like a "lean startup." Fellows spend 12 months as "embedded entrepreneurs-in-residence," utilizing technology-driven strategies to make the government "more innovative, more transparent and more responsive."

President Obama announced the news in the video above, saying, “My hope is this continues to encourage a culture of public service among our innovators, and tech entrepreneurs, so that we can keep building a government that’s as modern, as innovative, and as engaging as our incredible tech sector is."

Presidential Innovation Fellows will continue to be housed within the General Services Administration, serving on projects throughout the executive branch. The order also mandates the creation of a director to manage the program and an advisory board to guide it. The director will be responsible for the "selection, hiring, and deployment of Fellows within government."

Including the six fellows announced today, there has now been a total of 96 selected so far, including 35 that have stayed on inside government once their terms have ended.

"Fellows have already delivered extraordinary value for the American people in just the first three years," wrote U.S. Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith. "We can only imagine the kind of impact we will see year after year as the program supports this top American talent to collaborate and innovate with colleagues across government — providing great value, lowering costs, and together solving the many challenges we face as a nation."

This value has been apparent in the plethora of beneficial projects, ideas and other efforts that have come out of the program. This includes the Police Data Initiative (of which Sunlight is a proud partner), which is making criminal justice data public online; building up 18F, a digital consultancy housed within government; developing FBOpen, a platform that helps small businesses more easily find opportunities to work with the federal government; creating a crowd-mapping tool for disaster response called MapGive; and countless others.

The full list of fellows can be found here, and more about some current PIF projects can be found here. And you can keep up with their work by following @InnovFellows on Twitter.

Aug 24, 2015

Over the weekend, Twitter informed the Open State Foundation that it was suspending API access to all remaining Politwoops sites in 30 countries around the world.

In May, Twitter shut down the U.S. version run by the Sunlight Foundation, a deeply disappointing choice that eliminated a genuine tool for public accountability.

A statement from the Open State Foundation read:

Politwoops began in the Netherlands in 2010 at a hackathon. Since then it has been further developed by Open State Foundation, turning it into a useful tool for journalists and spreading it to 30 countries, from Egypt, Tunisia, Greece, the UK and France to the Vatican and the European Parliament. In 30 countries, it automatically monitored politicians’ profiles (elected members of national parliaments) for deleted tweets and made them visible. In 2014 Open State Foundation launched Diplotwoops, screening deleted messages by diplomats and embassies around the world. These sites have been extensively used and cited by journalists around the world.

"What elected politicians publicly say is a matter of public record," said Arjan El Fassed, director of the Open State Foundation. "Even when tweets are deleted, it’s part of parliamentary history. These tweets were once posted and later deleted. What politicians say in public should be available to anyone. This is not about typos but it is a unique insight on how messages from elected politicians can change without notice."

In 2012, Sunlight started the U.S. version of Politwoops. At the time, Twitter informed us that the project violated its terms of service, but we explained the goals of the project and agreed to create a human curation workflow to ensure that the site screened out corrected low-value tweets, like typos as well as incorrect links and Twitter handles. We implemented this layer of journalistic judgment with blessings from Twitter and the site continued. In May, Twitter reversed course and shut down Sunlight's version of Politwoops.

In response to the news, Sunlight Foundation President Chris Gates said:

We’re disappointed that Twitter has decided to double down on its decision to kill Politwoops around the world. There is immense value in tracking deleted public tweets, which offered an intimate perspective on politicians and how they communicate with their constituents. Our perspective is that elected officials and candidates are public figures, who don’t have the same expectation of privacy as a private individual. Unfortunately, what we’ve learned is that public tweets don’t belong to the public. Our shared conversations on "public" platforms are increasingly taking place in privately owned and managed walled gardens, which means that the politics that occur in such conversations are subject to private rules.

Technology is creating new and imaginative ways to support a healthy civic discourse, but we clearly have work left to do to determine how our expectations for public discourse will play out in privately owned and managed spaces.

Aug 24, 2015

A view inside the Library of Congress, which houses the Congressional Research Service. (Photo credit: Architect of the Capitol/Flickr)

In an open letter sent today to the leadership of the House and Senate committees that oversee the Congressional Research Service (CRS), the Sunlight Foundation joined a bipartisan coalition of 40 advocacy groups, businesses, nonprofits and think tanks, as well as over 90 scholars, researchers, librarians, activists and private citizens, to support public access to CRS reports.

Last year, the CRS wrote more than 1,000 new reports, updated 2,500 more and received over $100 million in taxpayer funding. These reports play an important role in the lawmaking process by serving as an authoritative and unbiased source of information for legislators and staff.

Even though the reports are not confidential, they are currently only distributed directly to members of Congress, who can then decide whether or not to distribute them publicly. As a result, access to reports is lopsided. CRS reports are readily available to Capitol Hill insiders. Well-connected companies charge high fees to redistribute reports they collect. Students, journalists, researchers and other members of the public, however, may not be able to access reports at all; the few reports that are publicly available are rarely updated and quickly go out of date.

Congress can easily resolve this inequity by providing comprehensive free public access to all nonconfidential CRS reports — something we've passionately supported in the past.

Over the past 10 years, CRS reports have been cited in 190 federal court opinions, more than 100 articles in The New York Times and The Washington Post, and are often published in the record of legislative proceedings. The Government Accountability Office, the Congressional Budget Office, the Law Library of Congress and 85 percent of G-20 countries with similar parliamentary research offices already make their reports available to the public — it is time for the CRS to follow suit.

Issues that matter in Congress matter to constituents. Whenever possible, members of the public should be able to benefit from the same information and research as the members of Congress they have elected to represent them.

Read the full letter below.

Aug 24, 2015

Tom Nash, journalist and FOIA agitator

The city of Richmond, Va., recently unveiled an open data portal that gives people access to important data that had long languished in dark corners of its website. Everything from crime data to property records are easily searchable and downloadable, with all sorts of charts and datasets ready to grab.

That all sounds fantastic, and it is. More cities, especially mid-size cities like Richmond, should be getting on board with the open data movement. But as a journalist who has now seen two small cities (see Somerville, Mass.) embrace this kind of transparency while ignoring others, it’s important that we remind government officials that open data is not a replacement for following the letter and spirit of freedom of information laws.

The same city that just unveiled its open data portal makes no serious attempt at accurate record keeping or fairness when it comes to FOIA requests. Its FOIA guidelines are more than a decade old and do little to actually guide anyone, and it charges fees based on whim rather than policy — when it’s not outright rejecting reasonable requests for important information.

A couple examples from the past six months:

  • It took a lawsuit from a citizen to wrest away the separation agreement between the city and its former chief administrative officer. The mayor even asked city councilors who wished to see it to sign a nondisclosure agreement first.
  • After the Economic Development Authority refused to release important documents about a deal that will bring in a popular west coast brewery to the city, a reporter's persistence finally showed that construction began before the city council had voted on the proposal.
City Hall in Richmond, Va. (Photo credit: Taber Andrew Bain/Flickr)

But while we can fume over poorly behaved officials, we're supposed to have FOIA laws that level the playing field. But the day-to-day reality of making a FOIA request from the mayor's office is more like a slammed door than its much-touted portal. As a final example of how backwards their FOIA culture remains, Mayor Dwight Jones uses an AOL email account, whose each and every email is “searched” for any requested term two eyeballs at a time instead of by hitting the search button.

My first attempt at asking for this information came with an eight-hour estimate of “searching” for just one week's worth of email. The details of the back-and-forth over how they came up with their unreasonable time estimate (which kept fluctuating with each protest from me) are available at MuckRock, if you think I'm exaggerating how awful the situation is.

So, Richmond's open data portal looks great, and has some useful information. But no one should mention how great it is without noting that, behind the portal, the same culture of government obstinance remains. Open data can be a great tool for accountability, but we need our mayors to be willing to share information that we actually ask for — and not be using AOL email.

Interested in writing a guest blog for Sunlight? Email us at guestblog@sunlightfoundation.com

Aug 21, 2015

A screenshot of the 2016 cycle overview page, found within Sunlight's Real-Time Campaign Finance tracker.

The 2016 election cycle is well underway and political hopefuls on the presidential and congressional level are kicking their fundraising into high gear — and Sunlight's Real-Time Campaign Finance tracker can help you follow the money.

Real-Time allows anyone to search, sort, filter and get alerts for campaign finance reports the minute they land at the Federal Election Commission.

To get started quickly, take a look at the overview pages, which will give you a simple snapshot of the money influencing the 2016 elections. This section provides handy fundraising and spending totals for a variety of political groups, from super PACs to candidate committees to parties. But the true value lies in digging into the data.

You can sign up to get notified when a particular committee files — or whenever something new is reported in a particular race. You can see itemized contributions and spending; filter independent expenditures to get the latest info; or download bulk files showing all the contributions, spending or independent expenditures made to or by a candidate or committee since Jan. 1.

Below we'll highlight some of the cool features of our Real-Time Campaign Finance tracker, including presidential fundraising, outside money and more.

Presidential fundraising

A screenshot of Sunlight's presidential fundraising page, found on the Real-Time Campaign Finance tracker.

To help White House watchers tracking the millions of dollars at play in next year’s election, we've added a collection of political committees supporting known, and likely, presidential candidates. The new page groups all the campaign vehicles of the major contenders in one place, with links to summaries of the groups’ latest financial activity.

To provide as complete a picture as possible of the presidential landscape, we also list super PACs with the candidate they are likely to support in addition to their official presidential committee and leadership PAC, if available. (However, it’s important to note that a super PAC may not legally coordinate any of its spending or campaign strategy with a federal candidate). We have also included political entities that don’t register at the FEC: To get technical, these include 527 political groups, which make financial disclosures to the IRS, and 501(c)(4) nonprofit organizations, often called dark money groups because they are not required to reveal their donors.

Many candidates are already raising and spending money like a presidential frontrunner, so visit the presidential fundraising page and see which White House hopeful is winning the money race.

Outside spending

A screenshot of the top outside spenders in the 2016 cycle, found within Sunlight's Real-Time Campaign Finance tracker.

Outside money is playing a larger role than ever before. That's why we've included an overview page that breaks down all outside spending by tone (positive or negative), by type of committee, by race and by party preference. Just want the list of top outside spenders? It's one click away. These pages are easy ways to get a bird's eye view of third-party groups like super PACs and dark money organizations.

You can also check our feed of up-to-the-minute independent expenditure filings to analyze the latest outside spending.

Super PACs

Big super PACs are big players in today's political climate. Want a list of the ones that have poured the most money into this election cycle? We got you covered. This page takes a look at their role in greater detail, categorizing their spending by political preference. (This is an editorial judgment that we make here at Sunlight based on committees' spending patterns.) Simply click on a committee's name to get the details on its contributions, disbursements and independent expenditures.

Dark money

Dark money groups are entities — typically 501(c)(4)s, but sometimes corporations, LLCs or individuals — that haven't registered as political groups with the FEC because they do not consider politics to be their "primary purpose." As such, these groups aren't required to report their donors, but do report their independent expenditures. The information we have on them can be found here.

Real-time data

As the name implies, our Real-Time Campaign Finance tracker is the most updated source of campaign finance information, so check back frequently to monitor the filings as they hit the FEC — you never know when you'll find that next story.

One disclaimer: We track Senate filings by summary — including the National Republican Senatorial Campaign and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee — but those dribble in pretty late, because, as readers of this blog know, senators and Senate candidates have thus far exempted themselves from the 21st century when it comes to filing campaign finance reports.


There you have it, a quick overview of Sunlight's Real-Time Campaign Finance tracker. We highly encourage you to dig deep into these data; if you're up for it, download the bulk files, too. So, when that next filing deadline rolls around, look to Sunlight's Real-Time Campaign Finance tracker for the latest campaign finance data.

Aug 20, 2015

An illegal fishing vessel from Gabon. (Photo credit: National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration)

While open data is at the center of what we do at the Sunlight Foundation, our emphasis has always been in the context of monitoring the influence of campaign finance activity or improving access to government information. That said, we are always excited to see other stories outside that realm, and WhoFishesFAR — a recently launched website that tracks international fishing agreements — presents a new and innovative approach to accountability rooted in open data.

International fishing practices are a source of environmental, economic and humanitarian problems. Overfishing is hazardous to marine biodiversity and long-term fishing sustainability. Exploitation and predatory business practices impoverish communities and deplete natural resources. Slavery and labour abuse is well documented in the fishing industry. Much of these issues fall under the umbrella of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. The economic costs from IUU fishing are estimated at $23 billion, the environmental and moral costs incalculable. In order to combat this, regulation and third-party audits of fishing systems are absolute necessities. Establishing an accessible and online dataset is a significant and forward-thinking step towards establishing and enforcing better fishing practices. And that's where WhoFishesFAR comes in.

The European Union requires that all EU fishing vessels operating in distant waters to be registered under the Fishing Authorisation Regulation (FAR). This information wasn’t available to the public until the release of WhoFishesFAR. The project is the brainchild of several NGOs, including the World Wildlife Federation and the Environmental Justice Foundation, who requested FAR data from the European Commission. The dataset catalogs the fleet of almost all FAR registered ships. The data are indexed by country of origin, operating period, vessel number, fishery and trade agreement.

The bulk of illegal fishing practices occur outside of European waters, but they involve European vessels and states. Many countries are hesitant to punish fishing violations, as the offending entities will simply take their business to other waters and fisheries. Furthermore, many boats fly flags of convenience, meaning that they display the flag of a country other than the country of ownership. The widespread pervasiveness of illicit fishing practices and shoddiness of vessel registration regulations shields from wrongdoers any sort of accountability. But WhoFishesFAR could potentially change all that.

With these new data, previously unmonitored vessels can now be taken to task. According to the WhoFishesFAR dataset, between 2010 and 2014, 15,264 EU ships were authorized under FAR to fish outside waters. Using this information, individual vessels can now be monitored and held accountable by the public. Ships are linked with CFR numbers, meaning that even if they switch names or flags, they’re still tracked in the dataset. The release of WhoFishesFAR coincides with the upcoming review of the FAR legal system. Later this year, FAR will be examined and revised by the European Council. Using this dataset, advocates can research and lobby on behalf of more comprehensive anti-IUU legislature and stricter FAR registration standards. In response to freedom of information requests, the European Commission has admitted that it doesn’t gather data on private or chartering agreements, as they aren’t reported by member states to the EU. This project has highlighted such loopholes within FAR, loopholes which will hopefully addressed in upcoming sessions.

Before the compilation of this data, the size, makeup and individual characteristics of the EU FAR fleet was altogether unknown. NGOs and other stakeholders didn’t have official or complete data on the amount of EU vessels involved in high seas fishing, where they fished and what agreements they fished under. This data opens up a wealth of opportunities for research, advocacy and further public information requests.

The publication of this dataset is a breakthrough for open data proponents, regulators and marine conservationists alike, possibly impacting both the current state of global fishing as well as the laws that govern it. WhoFishesFAR is an example of the exciting potential of open data when applied to a variety of global issues.