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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

Nov 24, 2015

Marco Rubio speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference. (Photo credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

No presidential candidate has relied on “dark money” as much as Marco Rubio has this year.  

The Conservative Solutions Project has spent nearly $8.5 million on TV ads, making it the second biggest advertiser so far in the entire presidential race according to Kantar Media data. The group is paying for ads in early-voting states that feature Rubio, though they usually avoid openly calling for his election. As a 501(c)(4) organization, the Conservative Solutions Project does not have to disclose its donors. But it is also expected to further the “social welfare,” not simply promote a single candidate.  

Other candidates are benefiting from 501(c)(4) organizations — colloquially referred to as dark money groups — but, as Andrew Prokop of Vox notes, only Rubio has one that is airing TV ads. By contrast, Right to Rise Policy Solutions, a 501(c)(4) with ties to Jeb Bush, has focused on issuing policy papers. Rubio has only just started running his own campaign ads, but Conservative Solutions Project has been airing spots for weeks that feature footage of the Florida senator. Here are two of the CSP’s advertisements, both built around Rubio speeches, one on domestic policy, the other on foreign affairs.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) first spotted the fact that CSP's advertising forms refer specifically to Rubio; CREW subsequently filed a complaint to the IRS, claiming that this political activity by the Conservative Solutions Project violated 501(c)(4) tax law. Fellow watchdog organizations Campaign Legal Center and Democracy 21 have followed suit, filing a separate complaint and urging the Department of Justice to investigate the Conservative Solutions Project, arguing that is simply set up to promote a presidential candidate — which would indeed be a violation of IRS rules.

This suggests that the Conservative Solutions Project may be primarily aimed at promoting Rubio as a presidential candidate. A New York Times editorial called the tactics “one of the most brazen” abuses of the campaign finance system so far in the presidential race.  

The Conservative Solutions Project is not alone. American Encore, another nonprofit controlled by a political operative who is backing Rubio, is now running TV ads in Iowa attacking Ted Cruz for his record on electronic surveillance issues. The commercial, which opens with footage of the Paris terror attacks, compares Cruz to Barack Obama and warns that he voted to weaken “our ability to fight terrorists.” American Encore, which ran also ads in the 2014 Arizona gubernatorial elections, does not disclose its donors.  

As Prokop notes, Rubio has a history of being close to his top donors, such as Florida businessmen Norman Braman and Max Alvarez. But because of this group’s exploitation of its IRS status, we cannot know who might be funding the main source of pro-Rubio ads so far. Rubio has said that he wants “sunlight” that illuminates the identity of donors and spending. But instead, he is benefiting from dark shadows that keep voters from seeing who is helping him on his quest to win the White House.

Nov 24, 2015

(Image credit: Dun & Bradstreet)

Last week, the Department of Defense (DoD), General Services Administration (GSA) and NASA proposed an amendment to the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) that would have a transformative effect on the way the government tracks its grants and contracts spending — and the way the public interacts with that information.

Currently, the FAR requires all entities that want to do business with the federal government to get a DUNS number, used as a unique numeric identifier. This language essentially gives a monopoly on entity tracking to Dun & Bradstreet, the firm that manages the proprietary DUNS numbering system and imposes restrictive licenses and high fees on potential users of the data.

Problems with this arrangement have been well documented by Sunlight, our allies, journalists and even the GAO. In short, relying on the proprietary DUNS standard is unnecessarily expensive and creates closed data out of public information, limiting its utility to watchdogs, researchers, journalists and more.

Now the DoD, GSA, and NASA are proposing to eliminate explicit references to the DUNS number from the FAR. This won't immediately solve the problem, but it will pave the way for a more open system of entity identification.

DoD, GSA and NASA recognize that this is merely a first step and seem to understand that engaging public stakeholders will be vital to ensure a useful and open long term solution is agreed upon. Moving forward, according to the proposed rule, "the Federal Government will establish a transparent process for exploring potential alternatives to existing entity identifiers."

The whole proposed rulemaking can be found here and comments are being accepted until Jan. 19, 2016.

Nov 23, 2015

Eric Roche, chief data officer of Kansas City, Mo.

Kansas City, Mo., committed early to the idea of open data, launching its portal in 2013. When I began managing open data operations earlier this year, it was clear that the city was committed to making data available to the public to increase transparency and encourage citizen and business participation in government. As such, when Bloomberg Philanthropies announced its What Works Cities initiative to help cities make evidence-based, data-driven decisions last spring, Kansas City jumped at the chance to participate. In August, we were selected for What Works Cities, working alongside experts in the field to establish ourselves as leaders in the use of open data to achieve citywide goals and engage with the public.

As one of the first What Works cities, we committed to helping build citywide capacity to access and utilize data. We want residents to be able to see how their tax dollars are being spent. We want businesses to be able to use data to understand their markets in order to create innovative products. We want schools to use data to better understand the neighborhoods their students live in. We also know from experience that opening up our data will help improve our internal operations, saving time spent fulfilling requests for data and making it easier to foster cross-departmental collaboration. We are extremely passionate about how empowering open data is for employees across the organization, and we can’t wait to see what types of innovation it generates.

As a part of this process, we established a governance committee that is a mechanism for city departments to collaborate with the City Manager’s Office, Legal Department and IT to identify methods for prioritizing the release of data. We recently held our first governance committee meeting, in which we discussed issues that our departments had with sharing data and the ways in which our open data program could help us develop solutions.

The Kansas City, Mo., skyline. (Photo credit: Charvex/Wikimedia Commons)

We also committed to collaborating with the Sunlight Foundation to revise the city’s first open data policy. The updated ordinance now incorporates 16 additional best practices in open data policy, as identified by Sunlight. For example, the policy provides a more concrete structure for oversight and calls for streamlining the release of data. Additionally, it stipulates that data collected for the government on behalf of third-party agencies should also be made open, making it easier for the public to understand how outside agencies are performing. And in general, the new ordinance makes Kansas City’s data as user-friendly as possible by providing descriptions, narratives, supporting documentation and code where appropriate.

We are extremely excited about what is already being done with city data, from our own KCStat dashboard to what Code for KC is developing. Being able to sit down with partners from the nonprofit world, civic coding community, neighborhood leaders and policy experts to objectively discuss how to move the city forward is especially rewarding for us, and we can’t wait to expand the ability of these groups to make data-driven decisions in quick, easy and innovative ways.

Interested in writing a guest blog for Sunlight? Email us at [email protected]

Nov 19, 2015

(Image credit: Sunlight Foundation)

Technology and the Internet have fundamentally changed the way people go about their daily lives. From a cell phone people can hail a cab, order dinner, get their dry cleaning picked up or ask Google, "Who is Dave Brat?"

Eighty-seven percent of adults who use the Internet say it has improved their ability to learn new things. Additionally, 72 percent like having so much information easily accessible. But it may come as a surprise that one important bit of information is missing online.

The United States Statutes at Large is the legal and permanent evidence of all the laws enacted during a session of Congress, in addition to all the concurrent resolutions, proposed and ratified amendments to the Constitution, and proclamations by the president. And yet it is not available online in a user-friendly format.

The Internet is the dominant, ubiquitous communications platform of modern society. Making the Statutes at Large accessible online is not only a good practice in government transparency, but it also works to ensure what John Adams called “a government of laws and not of men.”

That’s why Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., and I introduced the Statutes at Large Modernization Act. This simple bill would put the Statutes at Large online in a digital and searchable format. In 2015, citizens rightly expect easy online access to the laws that affect their daily lives.

Transparency is essential in ensuring that the federal government is accountable to the American people. With transparency comes an informed public, an essential foundation for democracy.

The American people should have easy access to the entire legal history of the United States. This simple step will empower citizens with better knowledge of the laws that affect their daily lives and the laws governed earlier generations of Americans.

Nov 18, 2015

Bernie Sanders speaking at a town meeting in Phoenix, Ariz. (Photo credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

Bernie Sanders can often be heard on the campaign trail decrying the role of money in politics. Sanders has stated many times he does not have a super PAC, and even dedicated a page on his website entitled “I don’t have a super PAC.” But it seems he's getting super PAC support — whether he wants it or not.

National Nurses United endorsed Sanders on Aug. 11, and to date the group's affiliated super PAC has spent a little more than $569,000 in support of him. The spending ranges from print and online ads to printing materials, with significant buys in key states like Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. As of the last super PAC filing on June 30, the group had about $250,000 cash on hand.

Bingo with Bernie cards, paid for by National Nurses United's super PAC.

National Nurses United for Patient Protection is a super PAC whose primary donor is National Nurses United, a union of more than 185,000 registered nurses across all 50 states. The super PAC also has another donor from its filing earlier this year, a 527 group called Progressive Kick, which runs donor-matching programs for progressive causes.

Using our Real-Time Federal Campaign Finance tracker, we were able to search all of the group's independent expenditures filed with the Federal Election Commission.

Currently, super PACs only have to file reports with the FEC every six months in off years. This increases to quarterly or monthly during the election year. Following these types of expenditures, which are generally reported to the FEC within 48 hours, is one of the ways Sunlight tracks the flow of money out of super PACs and other outside groups.

It is certainly no secret that this group has proudly endorsed Sanders for president. Sanders filmed a video for the group, thanking its 185,000 members for supporting his candidacy. This vote of confidence is viewed as a political win for Sanders as it's his first endorsement from a powerful union.

This is nothing new for Nurses United. According to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, in the 2014 elections the super PAC spent $2.3 million, however none of these were on independent expenditures. The group's spending mostly consisted of a $1.5 million disbursement to Progressive Kick. The super PAC only spent a little over $500,000 in 2012. The union and its affiliated super PAC are transparent about their goals, advocating for Medicare spending and improved workers' rights.

It is true Sanders does not have an affiliated super PAC run by former aides. In a world where court rulings have allowed these groups to thrive, super PACs have become a very common tool used by unions and similar groups that could align with Sanders to spend money on elections.

This is the first of many big spending campaigns by unions in favor of Democratic candidates. Sanders received an endorsement from the Postal Workers union, and just this week the SEIU endorsed Hillary Clinton, which is sure to come with a boost of grassroots and financial support.

Overall, the spending by Nurses United is relatively modest in nature compared to the other big spending super PACs; the pro-Jeb Bush Right to Rise USA has doled out $31 million so far in independent expenditures.

Help us follow the money by using our Real-Time Federal Campaign Finance tracker and submitting fundraising invites anonymously to Political Party Time.

Nov 18, 2015

As of May 2015, at least 20 countries worldwide have lobbying regulation in place at the national level. Unfortunately, the quality of this regulation varies and most don’t include all of the key elements of transparency, integrity and equality of access in lobbying. To support efforts to better regulate this currently opaque practice across the globe, we are proud to support new international standards that give clear guidance to governments on what they need to do to clean up lobbying.

Multiple scandals throughout the world demonstrate that without clear and enforceable rules, those who have the best connections and more resources at their disposal can come to dominate political decision-making. Quite notable is the recent Volkswagen scandal in the E.U. — at face value a story of environmental recklessness and the deception of consumers and regulators on a grand scale, but one with undercurrents of undue influence, privileged access and aggressive lobbying in the private interest. With a reported annual expenditure of €3.3 million and 43 employees involved in the company’s EU lobbying activities, Volkswagen is in the top 10 companies and groups spending the most on lobbying the EU. In the EU’s complex lawmaking process surrounding emissions testing, evidence suggests that intense lobbying was carried out by carmakers at every turn and there are indications that they have been successful shaping EU legislation to suit their interests.

A collective of international advocacy organizations — including the Sunlight Foundation, alongside Transparency International, Access Info Europe and Open Knowledge — have published new International Standards for Lobbying Regulation to answer questions of how to regulate lobbying and ensure that decision-making is transparent, participatory and ultimately serves the public interest. This initiative is unique in that it draws on the experience of a broad coalition of civil society organizations active in the field of lobbying transparency and open governance, and goes further than existing regulations and standards.

The standards were drawn up following an intensive review of legislation worldwide and consultation with civil society, government and lobbyists themselves. In addition to giving guidance to governments, the standards can also be used by civil society for benchmarking existing or draft laws and advocating for better regulation. If you want additional information on the drafting of the standards, check out the announcement blog post from Transparency International.

We believe that these international standards will provide the groundwork to aid in the introduction of legislative footprints in countries across the world, ensuring full transparency of decision-making processes and promoting participation in public decision-making from individuals and groups with a range of perspectives. Sunlight could not have been more happy to contribute to this effort and look forward to following the long tail of the International Standards for Lobbying Regulation. To participate in the ongoing conversation, feel free to subscribe to the lobbying transparency list serve. We look forward to hearing from you!

Nov 16, 2015

Vid Doria, secretary general and project coordinator at Transparency International Slovenia.

The term "legislative footprint" 1 has become a popular new concept surrounding transparency of the legislative process and supervision of lobbying in public decision-making. But the world has not yet seen a comprehensive, real life, IT-supported legislative footprint in practice. In the beginning of 2015, Transparency International Slovenia launched an innovative project with a vision to combine multiple databases into one holistic tool, illustrating a complete legislative footprint. The aim is to offer a user-friendly view into decision-making processes, from the moment the government starts to prepare an act all the way through the legislative process in the National Assembly. This will be enriched with reported lobbying contacts as well as data visualization of bills and their changes through time.

The platform Zakonodajni Monitor ("Legislative Monitor"), created by Transparency International Slovenia, Institute Jožef Stefan and, is a civil society project that will provide greater insight into the adoption of legislation, representing the first step in establishing a comprehensive legislative footprint. The first step was to establish a solid foundation for further upgrades of the platform. At this moment the platform combines:

  1. A database of adopted legislation in the National Assembly
  2. Reported lobbying contacts (already partially presented in previous blog post)
  3. Adoption of legislation processes (legislative procedure phases) — including parliamentary discussions and votes — and data about members of National Assembly
  4. Analyses of data and data visualizations.

Within Zakonodajni Monitor, you'll find a host of information on legislative acts, such as insight into the process of its adoption; some basic information about the act; a timeline of legislation process and voting; proposed amendments; as well as analyses of parliamentary discussions and voting for each proposed amendment and the act as a whole, where votes are displayed by single members of National Assembly and also by electoral units and deputy groups. The central visualization is a timeline of each single act. Currently, we are only showing timelines of legislation processes in the National Assembly due to the unavailability of data from the procedure in the government.

A screenshot of a politician page on Zakonodajni Monitor.

The second part of the platform contains information about members of the National Assembly. This section provides data on the statistics of voting, attendance of the legislators and voting per single act. It facilitates comparability of data about voting on the individual cases and reported lobbying contacts.

In addition, the platform provides 3 visualizations of data, namely analyzation of voting, presence and the hierarchically groupings of MPs based on voting.

Under the hood

The platform partly uses the MEAN stack, a Node.js/Express server with MongoDB database, but without the Angular frontend. The graphics in the frontend are handled with D3 (charts) and Sigma.js (networks) libraries. In the server, we use a number of advanced machine-learning technologies (NLP, k-means clustering, statistical classifiers) for making sense of the collected data.

Data are collected separately from several online and offline sources, then aggregated in a MongoDB database with several tables. A drawback of the Java data collection module is its heavy reliance on the availability of online data sources, which is inevitable as the state doesn't provide automated data interfaces. To complete one round of data gathering, the module must visit in excess of 6,000 web pages, placing a heavy load on at least one of the three servers we use.

A screenshot of Zakonodajni Monitor containing analyses of legislative discussions.

The platform provides great opportunities for upgrades but since the development of the platform depends on the availability of data provided by the government and courts, we are not able to show the entire legislative footprint. Namely, we are still in the process of obtaining a database of proposed legislation (95-97 percent of legislation is proposed by the government), court decisions, criminal statistics and inspection statistics. Also, systemic changes are needed to obtain these data and provide sufficient transparency into the legislative process and decisions, external influences where there is a high risk of political corruption.

The platform is meant to be used by active citizens, policy researchers, think tanks, NGOs, CSOs and journalists to access and use collected data for evidence-based advocacy, enabling them to be effective watchdogs over the legislative process. Stakeholders can hold decision-makers on all levels of the legislative process accountable with this tool. The platform enables effective policy change and system reform. TI Slovenia held training for journalists on how to use the platform, and it is garnering significant media attention.

1 Definition of legislative footprint as used in this project: consists of a list of laws, including act name, EPA registration number, the current phase of the legislative process the act is in and whether there has been a breach of resolution on normative activities (this represents a minimum standard of public consultation and openness of the legislative process, as it requires a minimum 30-day public debate on all new legislation). Great emphasis is given to the external/lobbying influences to the adopted decisions. (Return to top)

Interested in writing a guest blog for Sunlight? Email us at [email protected]

Nov 13, 2015

(Image credit: bombuscreative/iStockPhoto)

According to the Center for Public Integrity, Twitter has announced a new policy that its PAC will disclose all contributions within 48 hours. This is perhaps the most rapid disclosure policy adopted by a major U.S. corporation.

PACs normally file on a quarterly basis, but they can choose to file monthly during election years. Corporate PACs can raise funds from their employees, retirees and stockholders as well as their family members.

Twitter created a political action committee in 2013, and yes, there is a hashtag in its name. The PAC currently has $94,000 in its coffers, but it hasn't yet made any contributions. Twitter will also publicly disclose its contributions to trade associations and other membership groups, which are the leading sources of “dark money” in elections.

Twitter executives have indicated that they plan to donate to members who support its views on privacy, transparency and patent reform. The company already has two in-house lobbyists and has contracted with three lobbying firms, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Twitter’s commitment tracks closely with requirements under the Real Time Transparency Act (RTTA), a Sunlight-supported bill that was recently introduced in the Senate by Angus King, I-Maine, and in the House by Beto O'Rourke, D-Texas. The RTTA, which was also introduced in the last Congress, would require political committees to publish online donations totaling more than $1,000 within 48 hours of receipt.

Twitter's proactive disclosure is a positive step forward for transparency, and one we'd like to see other groups follow suit.