Support all your favorite nonprofits with a single donation.Donate safely, anonymously & monthly, in any amount. It's a smarter way to give online. Learn more
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
Well Partiers, we were spoiled with a whopping 39 fundraisers this past week. With all of the breakfasts, lunches and dinners (and small dinners) stretching our stomachs out, we were already hungrily searching for our next fix. But it looks especially grim with Congress taking yet another week off: just six parties on our calendar, folks, so send us some more!
But don’t despair! Campaigns go on forever, and the parties never end.
One piece of info that should give you hope: The New York mayoral race is heating up, and after a two-year time-out, Anthony Weiner is back in the game. He announced his candidacy for the “second toughest job in America” May 22. We’ve already seen at least one event for Republican mayoral candidate Joe Lhota but there are certainly many more to come that are still missing from our database (hint). The primary is in September and the election isn’t until November, giving us plenty of time to wallow in the inevitable triumphs and missteps. Oh, and of course, the “soul crushing” fundraising, as Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., calls it.
But for now, a look at this week’s haul.
Hump Day with the First Lady
Wednesday is a busy day for Michelle Obama who will travel to at least two fundraisers in the Northeast. First, she’ll appear in Boston at a reception for Rep. Ed Markey, who is running to fill the Senate seat vacated by now-Secretary of State John Kerry. The A.M. soiree will also feature Bay State Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Mo Cowan, who is temporarily filling in while Markey and his Republican challenger Gabriel Gomez battle it out.
That evening, Mrs. Obama will travel to New York to appear for some DNC fundraising at the LGBT Gala Reception, along with Jason Collins, the first openly-gay player in the NBA and Bravo exec Andy Cohen. The first lady is no stranger to fundraising, and this isn’t the first time she has courted the LGBT community for cash. Attendance at the Park Avenue dinner will cost you at least $1,250 per plate.
But if those parties just aren’t your scene and you find yourself in the “Silver State” (Nevada) with $2,500 to burn and you’re so desperately bored that golf actually seems like fun, you’re in luck. There’s a golf retreat in support of California Republican Rep. Buck McKeon at the Green Valley Ranch, Spa, and Casino.
Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., likes to make his fundraisers interesting. Some of his past activities include fishing on a chartered boat, afternoon cruises and, yes, you are about to read this right, a bull roast, a Maryland tradition.
This week he’s combining two national pastimes — baseball and partying — into one “fund-filled” evening, as the Nats take on the Orioles in the “Battle of the Beltway.” At just $250 per person, the event is also this week’s bargain funder (although if you represent a PAC, you’ll be down $1,000). Just be sure to factor in that a stadium beer will cost you $8.
Home State Weekend Getaways
Summer is a great time of year to invite family and friends over for a weekend of fun, especially if you can raise money at the same time. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., is hosting his annual Outer Banks weekend starting Friday, May 31 to benefit his leadership PAC, which lawmakers use to increase their influence and pay for travel for reasons such as, well, having more fundraisers. I know that frustrated feeling of seeing far too few dollars in the mason jar when I host cookouts, Sen. Burr, so I can understand why you’re asking for $2,000 a head. That’s the best insurance policy.
But if the boar, beltway battle and Boston aren’t enough for you, deep-pocketed politicos, the cocktail circuit heats up again when Congress reconvenes the first week of June, when Party Time already has 26 parties (and counting) on tap. You should have plenty of places to let the dollars fly. Until then, Partiers!
(Photo credit: White House)
The latest TV ad by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the gun control group funded by Mayor Mike Bloomberg, hit the airwaves in Nevada this week, ahead of a close vote Wednesday on a background check bill that passed the state Senate.
The bill would close the loophole that allows private sales to be made without checking the criminal background of the purchaser. It also bans people deemed mentally ill and likely to harm someone from possessing a gun. The bill can be followed on Scout, Sunlight's tool for tracking the progress of state and federal legislation.
The bill passed the Democrat-controlled state Senate by one vote, along party lines. It still requires approval by the Democratic-controlled Assembly and Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval, who said he has not decided whether he will back the bill or not.
The ads ran Tuesday and Wednesday on at least two channels -- the Las Vegas FOX and CBS affiliates. The group paid a total of $2,600 to run four 30-second ads during the evening news on the channels, according to Political Ad Sleuth, Sunlight's tool for tracking political ad purchases. The new ad appeared on Ad Hawk, Sunlight's tool for tracking TV ads.Read all about it
Legislation that would require virtually all agency reports to Congress be available online in one central location advanced out of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee yesterday on a voice vote. The Access to Congressionally Mandated Reports Act, originally sponsored by Rep. Mike Quigley and enjoying the bipartisan support of Committee Chairman Darrell Issa and ranking member Elijah Cummings, will need the sign-off of the Committee on House Administration before it can get a vote on the House floor. In March, 26 organizations wrote to the Oversight Committee to express their support for ACMRA.
The legislation, which garnered the approval of both committees last Congress but did not receive a vote last Congress before time ran out last session, would make agency reports to Congress more transparent. It directs agencies to give the Government Printing Office the reports they file with Congress (with appropriate redactions), and for GPO to make those reports available online in open formats for bulk download after a short time. GPO has expressed support for taking on this role. The legislation was tweaked slightly so that the repository will not include mention of reports whose very existence is classified.
Companion legislation was introduced last Congress by Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Joseph Lieberman and ranking member Susan Collins as well as committee member Tom Coburn. It is hoped that current HSGAC Chairman Tom Carper and ranking member Tom Coburn, along with other senators, will re-introduce legislation in the Senate. Earlier this year, Senator Coburn attempted to attach a version of ACMRA as an amendment to the budget resolution.
The common-sense measure will make it easier for members of Congress, their staff, federal agencies, and the public to gain access to these reports that help reveal how the government functions.
The amended legislation is available here.
Eight groups, including the Sunlight Foundation, sent letters to the House and Senate, urging Members of Congress to adopt legislation closing down the loophole that allows so-called social welfare organizations to engage in political activities. The murky law was at the root of the controversies surrounding the IRS’s improper targeting of certain groups’ applications for 501(c)(4) status.
At congressional hearings this week, many members of the Senate Finance Committee and House Oversight and Government Reform Committee raised the issue of fixing the broken IRS rules that allow social welfare organizations to engage in substantial electioneering activities. Many noted that engaging in campaign activities is explicitly contrary to the law that says such organizations must engage “exclusively” in social welfare activities. Campaign activities are not “social welfare” activities.
If it results in a clarification of the law, the IRS debacle will have a silver lining. But there is still a great deal of resistance to efforts that would ensure that groups that engage in political activities disclose their donors. Chairman Issa of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee rejected the idea that it was appropriate for his committee to address the question of any possible fixes—begging the question: what happened to the “reform” part of his committee? And in the Washington Post today, Senator Mitch McConnell uses the IRS case as a twisted justification to endorse dark money in our elections. His sanctimonious criticism of transparency measures ignores Supreme Court precedent as well as decades of support (including his own) for disclosure as a narrowly tailored method to address political corruption.
(It’s also remarkably hypocritical that McConnell would use the 1958 Supreme Court decision in Alabama v. NAACP to justify his position. That case prohibited government mandated disclosure of membership lists--not campaign finance records--when, on balance, threats to the group’s first amendment rights were thought to outweigh the public’s interest in disclosure. McConnell was less than concerned about the NAACP precedent when, under his direction, he repeatedly blocked an electronic filing bill in the Senate by insisting on an amendment that would require membership organizations disclose their members’ names any time a group filed an ethics complaint against a sitting senator. Apparently McConnell has his own balancing test, heavily weighted towards his own interest as opposed to the public interest.)
Narrow changes to tax law would ensure that groups intending to impact our elections disclose their donors, while fully protecting the anonymous speech of organizations that are legitimately engaged in social welfare activities. Clarifying the laws would also decrease the likelihood of future instances of improper targeting by the IRS.
The influential Committee on House Administration released a letter yesterday that endorsed the principle that "the documents of our democracy should be available to all Americans electronically, in perpetuity, and for free." The letter, signed by every member of the committee, rejected a recommendation made in a flawed report issued by the National Academy of Public Administration, which had called for the Government Printing Office to consider charging "end uses" for online access to government documents made available through the online portal FDsys.
The Committee on House Administration oversees GPO, and the letter is a clear signal as to how GPO should proceed. The letter is also another example of the Committee's deepening emphasis on making the government transparent and accessible.
The NAPA report was requested by Congress as part of a long-range operational review of GPO. Unfortunately, despite dozens of interviews and a ten-month study, NAPA failed to contact key "end-users" who are responsible for republishing and widely disseminating public information, such as GovTrack.us, WashingtonWatch.com, the Sunlight Foundation, the Center for Effective Government, the Internet Archive, Public.Resource.Org, and the Legal Information Institute. These organizations are leaders in disseminating government-held information online to the public at no cost, and NAPA would have done well to learn from their expertise and see whether it could be applied to GPO.
Instead, NAPA's report misstated and omitted parts of the history regarding imposing fees on public access to electronic information. It omitted a discussion of how third parties, like the non-profits identified above, further GPO's mission to "produce, protect, preserve, and distribute documents of our democracy." It failed to examine how charging end users for electronic access would destroy the ability of non-profit organizations to obtain and re-transmit the information, thereby placing greater burdens on GPO to fill the gap and weakening public access to crucial information.
We applaud the Committee on House Administration's continued support for public access to governmental information. While it is unknown whether the letter has broader applicability to data being sold by GPO outside of FDsys, such as that listed here, it is important that information on FDsys remain available to the public at no cost, a position affirmed by the Committee.
Zoning impacts the most physical elements of communities and impacts people's daily lives. When it comes to being transparent about the zoning process and its outcomes, many local governments are posting information -- one way or another -- on their websites. It's a varied landscape, but it is worth assessing to see where there might be room for improvement.
WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT ZONING
It's not surprising, in a way, that so many local governments choose to proactively release various kinds of information related to zoning. Zoning regulations can impact everything from what can be built and where it can be built to how it can be built and more. How a lot is zoned doesn't just determine whether that land can be used for commercial or residential purposes (or something else entirely) -- it can also determine the very structure of buildings down to details like height and square footage. Zoning and planning ordinances can even impact how close certain kinds of buildings may be to one another -- schools and liquor stores are one example of a spatial relationship that is sometimes regulated. Zoning has an impact on many of the most concrete aspects of a municipality, and this makes it an issue that's of interest to residents, business owners, developers, and many other groups. This means zoning can also be a prime target for people who want to game the system to obtain influence over this important aspect of cities.
The zoning process generally consists of elected or appointed officials making decisions about how land can be used and the specifications of structures. It has a direct impact on the shape communities take. The zoning process, and what it controls, however, varies from place to place. That means it's important for each municipality to be clear about what its process is so policymakers, residents, and businesses alike can all understand this powerful issue. For this look into the landscape of zoning data, we're including information most directly related to the process and its outcomes. We're not including other data that might be tied to land parcels, like data about tax breaks or special tax zones.
Not all zoning data is created equal, of course. Some cities simply release a list of the ordinances related to zoning, others release PDF maps of how land parcels are zoned, and some have interactive maps with layers of information. To have open zoning data, a municipality should have structured data available online that makes it easy for people to analyze and reuse -- in addition to information that enables people to understand the zoning process.
The phrase "open data" is often used without an explanation of how something qualifies as fitting that definition. For zoning data to be open, it should be more than "open" in the sense that it gives people the license and permission to reuse it. It should also be structured in such a way that it is machine-readable, enabling easy reuse of the data by those who want to add context or put it into an application. Formats that would qualify as open and structured include JSON, CSV, and XML for databases, as well as formats that can carry zoning data in particular across various kinds of geographic information system (GIS) software, like shapefiles.
This isn't to discount static files like PDFs entirely as something that can be helpful to post online. PDFs are primarily designed to preserve document structure across platforms and to be readable by humans. They might be useful, for example, for printing out maps of current zoning for a neighborhood and comparing it to maps of proposed zoning changes -- something that could be handed out at a neighborhood meeting or zoning commission meeting. However, if you want zoning information to be consumable by mobile, web or desktop applications, using PDFs is less than desirable.
COVERING THE BASICS
While maps might be the first kind of zoning data that comes to mind, maps aren't the only kind of information that matter when it comes to being open about zoning. Maps may provide an end-user experience, but they don't shine a light on how things got to be the way they are. Zoning maps don't usually provide answers to questions like: What is the zoning process for a specific municipality, since it can vary from city to city? What are the stipulations for how something is zoned in that city, and how can it be changed? What privileges or restrictions are handed out through the zoning process? Who oversees the zoning process? Where can people go to express support for, or concerns about, zoning changes?
Some cities proactively share information online that answers many of these process questions about their zoning. Arvada, CO, has a portal for its planning and zoning information that includes information about who oversees these processes, the current codes regulating the processes, and details about fees and applications, all in addition to an array of maps about zoning, planning, and land use. Madison, WI, has detailed guides about its zoning processes available from one page, too. Fort Worth, TX, has a single page dedicated to explicitly answering specific questions about zoning basics and linking to further resources.
Not all cities provide this basic layer of insight into how zoning happens, however. Some cities just post ordinances and some information about zoning commission meetings but don't add much more context, leaving questions about important details like permit processes. In other cities, all of the process questions are answered online, but they're not all grouped together in a way that's easy to find or navigate.
THE NEXT STEPS
Answering the procedural questions related to zoning and planning provides an important layer of transparency. More layers of transparency come into the picture when cities also release maps that visualize how zoning works. Zoning maps range from the simple and static to the complex and interactive.
The most simple and static zoning maps often come in the form of PDF files or other image files, like JPG. Bethlehem, PA, and Chandler, AZ, for example, make their current zoning maps available as downloadable PDFs.
While it's better to have PDFs than nothing at all, taking the next step and releasing more interactive zoning data interfaces enables analysis in a way that's often not possible with static image files. Some cities, like Alexandria, VA, provide both static maps in PDF formats and maps with layered information. Alexandria's GIS maps provide information in four layers: buildings, streets, metro tracks, and metro stops. Denver, CO, provides an interactive map on their website that allows users to see the zoning of specific parcels across the city, including details about zone districts, codes, and relevant ordinance numbers.
Map portals come with their own set of challenges for users trying to understand just what zoning regulations really mean in practice. Sometimes trying to make the maps able to show all the complex layers of zoning (or trying to make them too simplified) can cloud people's ability to understand what it all means.
OPEN, STRUCTURED DATA FOR DOWNLOADS
Having a map portal doesn't mean a city makes its zoning data available for download, either. Open, structured zoning data is actually available for download in a relatively small number of cities -- and mostly in big cities. Cities that do allow for bulk download of their geospatial data include Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, and Washington, D.C. We had a hard time finding small cities that allow for bulk downloads of their geospatial data.
Small or rural cities aren't exempt from having complex zoning processes and outcomes that should be made more transparent and could benefit from having bulk download. While bigger or more urban cities might typically have more area to zone or more kinds of zoning types related to residential and commercial purposes, small or rural cities sometimes have other kinds of zones (like agricultural) or their own special complexities. Releasing zoning information is something that's needed across the different sizes and types of municipalities.
Bulk downloads of zoning data are important because they can can make it easier for users to see the two levels of zoning data that should be available: parcel-level data containing property boundaries and zoning statuses as well as zone-level data that groups together parcels with the same zones. Data that is available for download should also include clear metadata that can help reveal trends in the data and assist with organizational, archival, and data quality efforts.
Most cities are far from this level of transparency, however. So what's to be done about zoning data? How can municipalities be open about the zoning process and what current zoning means?
Even those groups who work closely with zoning issues are aware of the complexities of this kind of data. The idea of trying to standardize this kind of data has sparked long conversations in the urban planning community about the benefits and challenges of such a move. It's hard to define what would work well across so many different sizes of cities with such different needs and people to serve. How a local government approaches zoning can also be impacted by complex legal and regulatory relationships between states and localities, which is explored as part of this National Association of Counties report.
There are many resources from locally-focused groups exploring how zoning, and the processes that create it, might be made more accessible to the public. We've compiled some in our research.
Defining open zoning data is a complex task. It's worth thinking about because it is a dataset that literally shapes the environment in which people live, work, and play. While there is complexity in zoning data, having better data would empower transparency and accountability in several ways: it would allow policymakers to better understand the impact of their decisions related to zoning, allow people to understand what they are (or are not) allowed to do, and provide accountability on the process itself, to name a few. We'll explore these impacts of opening up zoning data further in an upcoming post.
Thanks to Kaitlin Devine, Steve Spiker, Andrew Salzberg, Lou Huang, Andrew Hill, Juan Pablo-Velez, and many others for contributing information to this post.
Photo of Madison, WI, by Flickr user Ann Althouse.
Screenshot from City of Denver GIS map.
- Conservative members of the House are continuing their ill advised crusade against the Census Bureau, and Stephen Colbert had some things to say about recently introduced legislation that would effect business' ability to plan for the short and long term. (Government Executive)
- Following revelations that the Justice Department obtained a wide range of records about several journalists a bipartisan group of House members is pushing for legislation that would require federal entities to meet certain conditions before taking personal information from a journalist. (POLITICO)
- The Australian government admitted last week that they unintentionally censored more than 1,200 websites while trying to take one allegedly fraudulent site offline. Australia requires ISPs to block sites suspected of illegal activity if asked by the government. (Tech President)
- Remember Buck McKeon (R-CA), the Armed Services Committee chairman whose wife's run for California state assembly was bankrolled by defense contractors? His family is back and trying to use his power for their financial gain. Golden Oak Consulting, run by three of McKeon's relatives, is lobbying for a couple of companies with armed services interests. (Roll Call)
- As immigration reform legislation gains steam in Congress lobbyists are picking up their pace. The Chamber of Commerce, labor groups, and Silicon Valley are making major headlines and a host of other groups are staying under the radar but lobbying hard nonetheless. (The Hill)
- Prosecutors are planning to seek a retrial against five former officials in Bell, California who are accused of rampant corruption. A judge declared a mistrial in March after jurors failed to come to consensus on several counts. (AP/Yahoo)
- The DATA Act was reintroduced in the House and Senate last week. The legislation, which has been slightly simplified from the version that failed to pass through the 112th Congress, was passed out of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform yesterday. (Federal Computer Week, POGO)
- S.994. A bill to expand the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006 to increase accountability and transparency in Federal spending, and for other purposes. (DATA Act)
- H.R. 2061. The Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2013. (DATA Act)
Do you want to track transparency news? You can add our feed to your Google Reader, or view it on our Netvibes page. You can follow the progress of relevant bills on our Scout page. You can also get 2Day in #OpenGov sent directly to your reader!
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the guest blogger and those providing comments are theirs alone and do not reflect the opinions of the Sunlight Foundation or any employee thereof. Sunlight Foundation is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information within the guest blog.
Jason Hibbets is the project manager at Red Hat and lead administrator for opensource.com. He has been applying opensource principles in neighborhood organizations in Raleigh, NC for several years, highlighting the importance of transparency, collaboration, and community building. Follow the rest of his thoughts at @jhibbets.
Have a great idea to improve your city? Want to flex your creative and/or techie muscles? Want to spend two days networking, collaborating and maybe win some cash?
CityCamp NC, an event to promote citizen participation and innovation, will be held on May 30-31 at the James B. Hunt Jr. Library on the NC State University Campus in Raleigh. CityCamp NC will be followed by a Nation Day of Civic Hacking event hosted by Raleigh’s Code for America Brigade on June 1. Alisha Green and Rebecca Williams from Sunlight’s Policy team will also be in attendance.
This year, CityCamp NC will award a top prize of $3000 plus a consulting session with Jason Caplain at Bull City Venture Partners to the winning team. A second and third team will be awarded prizes of $1000 and $500, respectively.
Photo credit: City of Raleigh, NC
The event is $5 for students and government employees (appropriate ID must be shown at the door) and $10 for all others.
Time is running out! For more information and to register, visit http://citycampnc.org.
Disclaimer: Sunlight Foundation is one of the sponsors for CityCamp NC 2013.
Interested in writing a guest blog for Sunlight? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org