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
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

Apr 29, 2016

An image of Arjan El Fassed executive director of Open State Foundation
Arjan El Fassed, executive director of Open State Foundation. (Image credit: Open State Foundation)

In Europe, decisions by the European Union affect millions of citizens living and working within its member states and people around the world. In the wake of various crises around the world, there is a need to collaborate, discuss and push transparency needs further — whether it is for open company registers, parliamentary data, budgets, spending or open contracting.

As everyone has the right to information, people need to know how these decisions are made, who participates in preparing them, who receives funding, how you can make your views known and what information is held or produced to prepare and adopt those decisions.

Although more and more countries in Europe have adopted transparency and open data policies, abundant and necessary information is not disclosed, hard to find or not really accessible to everyone. It not only differs from country to country, but also between various institutions and agencies. As more machine-readable government data becomes available, government information needs to become more usable and understandable.

To help move this further in Europe, Open State Foundation and the Dutch Presidency of the European Council have launched a series of events, including: an online, Europeanwide open data App Competition; a number of local events in various European capitals; and finally a conference for open government — TransparencyCamp Europe — which will be held on June 1 in Amsterdam. It's free to attend, so sign up today!

Audience holding arms up in air
TCamp attendees in action — coming to Europe soon!

Too much data is scattered around various locations or comes in different formats. The recently launched European data portal brings public data from all over Europe into a central place, currently holding about 400,000 datasets from European countries sourced from national, regional, local and domain-specific public data providers. This portal includes 68 catalogs and 13 categories, such as government and public sector, the justice and legal system and public safety, health, transport, economy and finance. However, the availability of machine-readable data on national portals is relatively low. Only 15 percent of the European catalogs have more than 75 percent of their data available in machine-readable format.

EU decision making — involving national governments and parliaments, the European Commission and the European Parliament, the European Council and the many EU institutions and agencies — is quite complex. Still, there is already open data available, though differing in quality and ease of use.

While the EU Whoiswho website posts information on the EU’s institutions, who works there and their contact information, the data is not easily reusable. That is why we scraped it and have made it available to you on GitHub in CSV and JSON formats. And if you’re crawling through information on EU budgets, finances, funds, contracts and beneficiaries, you’ll notice room for improvement.

So join us and help to make the EU more transparent as TransparencyCamp Europe comes to Amsterdam.

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

Apr 28, 2016

TOP STORIES: The cast of ABC drama "Scandal" supported former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's campaign yesterday with a $5,000/person fundraiser in DC. As "scandalous events" in Washington go, however, this one barely registers.

We find a ton of interesting posts on governance at the GovLab's digest. What are you reading?

National

State and Local

St. Paul open data site
[St. Paul's Open Information portal]

  • Open Information St. Paul "makes data dynamic, relevant and user friendly," write Tarek Tomes, chief information officer of St. Paul, and Scott Cordes, the city's budget and innovation director, in a guest post on Sunlight's OpenGov Voices blog:
    "We believe an informed, engaged public can participate more fully in their community and help us innovate in our quest to make St. Paul the most livable city regardless of age, gender, race, income or any other marker of identity. To that end, we are thinking about the kinds of data that can help people in their everyday lives. Maybe you own a construction company that you want to grow, so you’re interested in learning what types of permits are being pulled most often. Maybe you’re a community activist wondering how election turnout compares in precincts across the city. Maybe you’re looking to buy a house and you would like to know crime information for the neighborhoods you’re considering. We at the city of St. Paul want to help people find easy answers to those questions and more."
  •  The municipality of Anchorage, Alaska adopted an open data policy.“Making Anchorage an open data city will give Anchorage cutting edge transparency and improve engagement and access to the Municipality,” said Mayor Berkowitz. Sunlight's team was proud to work with them to develop the policy. [Muni.org]
  • GovEx published a list of the books they're reading (and love) about data and governing. Great idea! Tell us what you're reading and we'll share here on the blog and newsletter. [GovEx]

International

Open_Gov_Impact_-__Private_Browsing__and_Edit_Post_‹_Sunlight_Foundation_—_WordPress
  • The World Bank launched OpenGovImpact.org, an interactive website that features the results of a recent mapping exercise funded by the bank. The website is accompanied by a report from the Open Government Research Consortium, which is made up of the Bank’s Open Government Global Solutions Group, the Open Government Partnership, New York University’s Govlab, Global Integrity, and Results for Development (R4D). An unfair summary of the executive summary is that more research is needed on the impact and outcomes of open government initiatives, policies and interventions.
  • Separately, The GovLab, MySociety and the World Bank's Digital Engagement Evaluation Team launched the Open Governance Research Exchange, a new platform for "curating and making accessible a diversity of findings on innovating governance." [OGRX.org]
  • The Institute for Development of Freedom of Information published research and recommendations on local government engagement for the Open Government Partnership. [IDFI]
  • The Council of Europe's Committee on Legal Co-operation's consultation on a draft recommendation on the regulation of lobbying activities regarding public decision-making ends tomorrow. The submission is based on the International Standards for Lobbying Regulation, which Access Info Europe, the Open Knowledge Foundation, Transparency International, and the Sunlight Foundation have been collaboratively working on over the past two years. [CDCJ].

Tired of your boss/friend/intern/uncle forwarding you this email every morning? You can sign up here and have it delivered direct to your inbox!

We want to find and share the most important stories about open government around the world from the past 24 hours here. To do that, we'll need YOUR help. Please send your tips and feedback at [email protected]. If you would like suggest an event, email us by 7 am on the Monday prior to the event.

Apr 28, 2016

St. Paul open data site
A screenshot of St. Paul's Open Information portal

In St. Paul, we have stopped talking about open data.

Data by itself is only useful to a small number of people – usually people who are highly literate in technology and numbers. We want to spark a culture of innovation across our city, and data alone won’t be enough to get us there.

To achieve our vision, we need to give people more than access to spreadsheets. We seek to provide the public with information so they can make informed decisions about their lives in St. Paul, and so they can help us identify challenges and innovative solutions to city problems. We’re not building our portal for a niche group. We’re aiming for the masses.

So instead of talking about open data, we’re talking about open information. We believe an informed, engaged public can participate more fully in their community and help us innovate in our quest to make St. Paul the most livable city regardless of age, gender, race, income or any other marker of identity. To that end, we are thinking about the kinds of data that can help people in their everyday lives. Maybe you own a construction company that you want to grow, so you’re interested in learning what types of permits are being pulled most often. Maybe you’re a community activist wondering how election turnout compares in precincts across the city. Maybe you’re looking to buy a house and you would like to know crime information for the neighborhoods you’re considering. We at the city of St. Paul want to help people find easy answers to those questions and more.

We recently launched our open data portal, Open Information St. Paul, with the aim of providing an open data site that is dynamic, relevant and user-friendly. St. Paul was not among the first cities to publish our data online via a portal, but with the launch of this site we became part of the “second wave of open data sites, where data is not just made ‘available’ as massive text files, but also visualized in interesting and compelling ways.”

When we identify a dataset destined for the open information portal, we determine how easily updates can be automated as well as how we can create meaningful visualizations off that dataset. By taking the time up front to ensure the data will always be timely and accurate — and then taking the extra step to create easily understandable visualizations — we are focused on delivering an excellent user experience. For example, a user interested in learning about vacant buildings in St. Paul can view charts illustrating numbers by building type, vacancy date, a map of building locations and more. With a simple click, these charts can be filtered to see details for particular subcategories, such as all single-family residential vacancies, and individual dots on the map can be clicked to pinpoint location and other details.

St. Paul insights: Business intelligence for city government

The Open Information portal is one part of a larger business intelligence program we are calling “Saint Paul Insights.” The goal is simple: provide the information staff need to make decisions, when and where they need to make them.

What do we mean by “business intelligence”? Our definition is this: the use of data analysis tools and applications to help business users turn data into information.

The St. Paul Insights program has three main tenets:

  1. Educate: enable city departments to become self-sufficient business intelligence users
  2. Automate: mitigate risk of reporting errors by automating dataset uploads whenever possible
  3. Communicate: keep our internal business partners up-to-date and identify opportunities for engaging the public through their suggestions and feedback.

Our business intelligence infrastructure will have three components: the business intelligence tools, governance and methodology for cataloging Saint Paul’s data assets; the public-facing open information platform; and the policy and data governance structures to hold it all together. We engaged strategic partners to help develop each of these areas. Heartland Business Systems provides the business intelligence expertise St. Paul needs to truly manage our data as an asset the same way we manage our physical assets such as street lights or public buildings. Learning to manage data as an asset is a big and exciting shift in organizational culture. Socrata provides the open information platform, advises us on best practices and connects us with our peers in other cities. The Sunlight Foundation, via Saint Paul’s recent designation as a Bloomberg Philanthropy “What Works City”, guided us in developing the resolution presented by Mayor Coleman to City Council, and also consulted on our data governance structure.

By uniting these areas of work under the St. Paul Insights strategy, we seek to help city staff see that open information is about more than transparency and accountability — it’s an integral component to our ability to make data-based decisions.

The beginning of a data-driven conversation

While it would be easy to see the launch of Open Information St. Paul as the capstone achievement in a year’s work on this project, we believe it is a beginning rather than an end. Coleman’s recent announcement of the Open Information site in his 2016 State of the City address is the start of what we hope becomes a long, iterative conversation between the community and city government about what data matters, why it matters and how we can learn from it to deliver better services for our residents.

View the video of St. Paul's open data resolution, which passed unanimously, here.

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

Apr 27, 2016

TOP STORIES: Sunlight's executive director, John Wonderlich, returned to the blog with this response to Tom Steinberg’s critiques of the open data movement.

"Advocates and activists often started on a path to request, scrape or sue for data because they saw an opportunity to use it to illuminate corruption, reveal shady corporate entities, track human rights abuses or defend speech rights," he writes. "The desire to achieve greater of social justice, reduce inequality and drive social change fuel the spreadsheets, policy papers and visualizations that characterize the open data movement. The people strengthening systems using encryption, contributing to massive open source projects, experimenting with collaborative approaches to politics and designing new ways to analyze power are generally not satisfied by tepid incremental improvements, and we need not be too concerned that they will." [Read the whole thing there.]

KEEP THE SUNSHINE IN! The Sunlight Foundation joined an effort led by Democracy 21 to oppose legislation by Rep. Peter Roskam, R- Ill., that would remove the non-public disclosure of donors requirement for 501(c) categorized nonprofit groups. The bill would eliminate the Internal Revenue Service’s ability to fully ensure that politically active dark money groups, such as a 501(c)(4), do not accept money from a foreign entity or foreign individual.

“This bill is a step backward for transparency and disclosure of politically active nonprofits, and would throw the IRS’s ability to enforce the law into serious doubt,” said Wonderlich. “The IRS is an important line of defense against a potential foreign company, foreign individual or foreign government donating to a nonprofit group that can then pour unlimited, undisclosed money into our elections. Let’s keep it that way.” [Read the letter here.]

WHO'S ATTACKING THE CFPB? A dark money group called "Protect America's Consumers" is running ads against the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, but no one knows who is behind it. We delve into what we do know about the group here. [Sunlight]

In our companion piece, Sunlight Staff Writer Libby Watson tried to track down the dark money behind the ads. She spent hours searching, with little to show for it. [Sunlight]

National

  • The U.S. House of Representatives passed the Email Privacy Act (H.R.699) by a vote of 419-0. Now the Senate will deliberate whether Uncle Sam needs to get a warrant to before accessing email or data hosted in the cloud. [Center for Democracy and Technology]
  • The office of the federal FOIA ombudsman posted a deep dive into the use of "Still Interested" letters on its blog. Part 1 of its report is now online. [OGIS]
  • USAID has posted a Grand Challenge for combating the Zika virus. $30 million dollars is allocated for the effort. [USAID]
  • Classified pages from the 9/11 commission's report may be released this summer. [New York Times]
  • A recently declassified report by the CIA's Inspector General found that the agency illegally hired independent contractors. [Vice]
  • The Obama administration is facing harsh criticism over transparency as FOIA reform is considered in Congress. [Inside Sources]
  • The data exhaust our actions leave behind will add new wrinkles to running for elected office in the future. [NextGov]
 

State and Local

 

 

test
  • A new iPhone app in California helps you register to vote by scanning the barcode on a driver's license. [RegisterToVote.us]
  • The California Supreme Court is going to livestream oral arguments. We hope U.S. Chief Justice Roberts is watching. [NCSC.org]
  • New legislation in the Ohio Senate seeks to speed up public records requests and reduce feeds, adding a mediation process. [Cleveland.com]

 

International

 

 

  • Hera Hussain wrote in from OpenCorporates to announce the launch of OpenGazettes.com, which has more than a million company records from gazette notices in the United Kingdom, France, Spain, Luxemboug and the Cayman Islands! "We've scraped this data, linked it to the data on OpenCorporates and made it open data," she explained, over email.
  • The distributed approach to forming policy pursued by the new government of Canada is drawing attention. [Policy Options]
  • Transparency and data disclosure is a good place for open government and climate action to meet. [OGP]
  • Get your daily dash of FOMO by searching #TicTec if you weren't in Barcelona to discuss civic tech today.

Tired of your boss/friend/intern/uncle forwarding you this email every morning? You can sign up here and have it delivered direct to your inbox!

We want to find and share the most important stories about open government around the world from the past 24 hours here. To do that, we'll need YOUR help. Please send your tips and feedback at [email protected]. If you would like suggest an event, email us by 7 am on the Monday prior to the event.

Apr 27, 2016

Tom Steinberg’s recent piece on Civicist raises familiar critiques of the open data movement, suggesting that advocacy is too incremental, political leaders are duplicitous and many basic problems have yet to be addressed.

Much of this critique is deeply familiar to the Sunlight Foundation, which has been a leader on both the adversarial and collaborative approaches to open data reform since 2006, giving us unique perspectives on the concerns Steinberg raises.

“Collaboration is threatening reform”

The threat of “overly-friendly collaboration between governments and transparency advocates” is often overstated. If advocacy can be split into two sides — the adversarial and the collaborative — then it’s reasonable to ask when the two approaches are rivalrous.

Steinberg suggests that the “oxygen” for advocacy is being hogged by collaborators, which neutralizes the outrage necessary for reform. In theory, one can imagine weak open data commitments being used for political cover. In practice, though, this defense suggests that open data commitments have far more political relevance than they actually do.

When the Obama administration’s opposition to strengthening the Freedom of Information Act came to light, no criticism was shut down through appeals to incremental progress. Obama claimed to champion FOIA while opposing Congress’s attempts to codify the same ideas.

Hypocrisy and scandal have their own distinct, self-evident merit; that’s why they’re politically powerful. Open data reforms have nowhere near this level of political salience. That’s part of why the first level of progress on open data has come so readily — our starting point was basically nil. Ten years ago, governments had basically no language on data in a modern sense, and that’s why vehicles like the Open Data Charter (garnering endorsement from the G8/7 in a shockingly short time), What Works Cities (building data-based governance approaches in dozens of American cities), Open Government Partnership (inspiring hundreds of commitments to open data and other topics in countries around the world) and many, many others have had such success spreading new policies, ideas and practices. When you’re starting with images of data in PDFs and senior leadership with no familiarity with data, there’s nowhere to go but up.

Collaborative initiatives like these are clearly just a starting point, and we do occasionally worry about whether they crowd out other approaches. I’m not particularly concerned about political capital, though, since scandal, hypocrisy and even vision for new reforms are all far more powerful forces than whatever modest defense against scandal incremental reforms might provide. I do see a more powerful concern, though, in the other resource modern reforms are often built upon: financial support.

The philanthropy and aid that supports the nongovernmental organizations that advocate for open data is certainly rivalrous, even if the amount of available funds is increasing with time. It’s not clear, however, that financial support is prioritizing collaborative approaches over the adversarial. This may be true from specific funders, but I don’t see that trend in the broader field. Philanthropy creates biases that reflect its peculiarities. The drive to measure outcomes prioritizes countable, predictable successes and an audience with executive power, like heads of state, governors and mayors. Grantmaking often coordinates awkwardly with the rhythms of politics, which are driven by elections, administrations, scandals or mass mobilizations. These biases, though, are either tractable problems, or reflect the inherent limitations of philanthropy. The Open Government Partnership grew around heads of state, and is learning to deal with legislative power; participation and social justice are hardly side issues in philanthropy.

If expending political capital isn’t much of a risk, and if philanthropy isn’t lulling open data into an irrelevant corner, the only other risk I see is in inspiration. If political power is seen as best displayed in an Open Government Partnership photo opportunity with heads of state, aren’t we all aiming a bit too low?

I doubt it. Open data activists love FOIA requests. Advocates and activists often started on a path to request, scrape or sue for data because they saw an opportunity to use it to illuminate corruption, reveal shady corporate entities, track human rights abuses or defend speech rights.

The desire to achieve greater of social justice, reduce inequality and drive social change fuel the spreadsheets, policy papers and visualizations that characterize the open data movement. The people strengthening systems using encryption, contributing to massive open source projects, experimenting with collaborative approaches to politics and designing new ways to analyze power are generally not satisfied by tepid incremental improvements, and we need not be too concerned that they will.

A collaborative approach to open data is also responsible for a canonical success in another context: the GTFS standard in public transportation. What Portland, Ore., and Google created has since been adopted around the country and beyond, enabling people to quickly and easily understand their public transit options in multiple ways. The importance of collaboration around setting standards is crucial to our shared future. Convening and discussion between governments, the private sector and civil society are driving more rapid change in more areas than people realize, from restaurant health inspection data to health reports for dialysis centers, nursing homes and hospitals.

The inside and outside approaches to government reform are often contrasted as though they are mutually exclusive. This is a false dichotomy. In our work, Sunlight has both delivered FOIA requests and lawsuits to government officials, and run massive advocacy campaigns on their behalf. Years of often adversarial effort can lead to collaborative processes, and collaborative spaces, in turn, can create the best opportunities for lawsuits, campaigns and basic truth-telling. Sometimes, the most radical advocate is the ignored public servant with a story to tell and some data to tell it, breaking down the line between collaborative and adversarial even further.

Open data advocacy isn’t perfect, and there’s clearly no shortage of work to be done. From expanding audiences, to building inclusion, to balancing the competing interests fighting both for and against disclosure, what “open data” should be, remains a work in progress. But it isn’t being destroyed by collaboration.

“Procurement has gone unaddressed”

Freeing data by adding conditions to government contracts is not just happening: It’s occurring systematically. Over the last five years, we have been asked about this concern by interested public officials so often that we’ve developed a templated response. Similarly, this is part of the Center for Government Excellence’s resource on the same topic.

While this isn’t a singular, global campaign, it is an important part of a systematic effort to build data into the governance processes of dozens of U.S. cities. Organizations like the Open Contracting Partnership are well positioned to scale this even further. It’s worth noting that we’ve seen far more demand from government officials than advocates for contracting language to create open data.

In the face of slowly winning a cultural fight, and as “contracts should require the creation of open data” is broadly adopted as common sense, the bigger barrier will likely be technical. This is part of why we’re so glad people like Waldo Jaquith, founder of U.S. Open Data and adviser to Sunlight, are chipping away at this very problem on a software level. They’re anticipating public officials’ and data managers’ needs and designing systems that bake in openness from the beginning.

“Real change only comes from scandals”

Steinberg is right that many of our most important reforms come from scandals. It’s no accident that one of the amendments to the Freedom of Information Act in 1975 that required a judicial review of executive claims to secrecy followed Watergate. These reforms, though, are also built on years of hard work, credibility, expertise, mistakes, course corrections and relationships. Sometimes newly elected leadership brings change, sometimes the differing priorities of party politics makes new things possible and sometimes the electorate itself shifts. In the U.S., we are going through all of these shifts at the same time, even as we are all adjusting to drastic shifts in technology and journalism that are changing how we think about information, data and public dialogue.

We have all seen how the combination of smartphones, online video and social media have fundamentally changed the dynamic of how nations see interactions between law enforcement and the governed. When the Justice Department finally acknowledged that it needed to improve how it collected data in response to The Washington Post's Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism, the change demonstrated how data collection and publication can not only hold the use of power accountable but shift the balance towards more accountable systems.

In my time at Sunlight, I’ve repeatedly seen excited conversations become a scraper, a report, a new law, a newly funded project, a presidential speech or a new organization. It would be a terrible mistake to measure reforms and the impact of the broader civic tech movement only against the hundred-year flood that is FOIA.

Compared to our bedrock disclosure law, other advances can seem minor, but their cumulative impact will provide the foundation for all the fights yet to come.

And our data-based fights are just getting started.

The fundamental questions of public life are all increasingly mediated through questions of access to data. All this collaboration, outrage, experimentation and litigation are laying the groundwork for our new definition of publicness. Who and what gets counted, and who gets to know about it, may look incremental, but that’s because these questions have crept into every aspect of our politics (in addition to many other aspects of our lives). Radical questions about the commons, speech and representation are being decided on listserv fights about database licenses, in litigation, and, yes, in photo ops with heads of state.

The shared sense of purpose of the open data movement writ large, contested as it may be, is the social foundation on which these questions will be answered, one way or another. Consider the experience and experimentation we’ll need to answer the following questions with confidence:

  • Who gets a voice in our decisions, and how will self-government adapt to the growing influence of a new class of oligarchs and corporations?
  • What is the proper role of private platforms in securing public access to governments, and to each other? And government platforms? NGO-run?
  • Who gets to see the algorithms that will shape an increasingly automated future?
  • Do whistleblowers maintain legal protection in a world of data-scale vulnerabilities and abuses?
  • How do we measure fairness in matters of public authority — who gets counted, who gets to count and how are results shared?
  • When is regulatory monitoring data public, shared only with governments, or private, as a matter of law or practice?
  • In a world of spreadsheets and sensors, how do we protect against the biases baked into our systems as they already exist?
  • How will the administration of justice navigate the competing interests of privacy and public oversight?
  • To what extent can public policy decisions be mediated through appeals to empirical data, and is our public policy apparatus prepared to take advantage of the information at its disposal?
  • What are the contours of our civic space as it intersects with increasingly concentrated wealth and government authority?
  • When can technology provide essential support for public participation, and when does it cause unintended consequences (or worse)?

As we live in a world where more and more of these questions are either answerable with data, or are going to be mediated through access to data, we’ll need all the approaches we can get: collaborative, adversarial, institutional and ad-hoc. Insofar as open data succeeds as a movement, though, these questions will cease to be “open data” questions, because the technical considerations will recede into the background, revealing the public policy questions at their core.

Apr 26, 2016

TOP STORIES: The Sunlight Foundation combined our analysis of Federal Election Commission data with interviews of reporters from the Arizona Republic, Baltimore Sun, National Journal, Minnesota Post and Texas Tribune and produced with a ranked list of the competitive U.S. House races where the most money has been spent so far in 2016.

National

 

  • Nextdoor announced that it would begin offering its public agency partners (mostly police departments to date) the ability to poll local residents on the private social network. “Having the ability to easily communicate with residents is imperative to our continued community policing efforts and adds another layer of transparency between our department and our community,” said Art Acevedo, Chief of Police in Austin, in a statement. “With Nextdoor Polls, we can connect directly with residents, gather their input in a structured way, and work together to make our city an even better place to call home.” We strongly encourage Nextdoor and participating agencies to not only gather input in a structured fashion but to release it as open data on municipal websites. [Nextdoor]
  • Symantec researchers found that mobile apps released by the Cruz and Kasich campaigns were exposing the personal data of users. [AP]
  • The Campaign Legal Center and Democracy 21 are suing the Federal Election Commission for failing to enforce the law and "protect the integrity of our democracy." [Campaign Legal Center]
  • The Financial Accounting Standards Board's proposal to reduce corporate disclosure requirements to shareholders -- expressed as providing more discretion about "materiality" -- hasn't gotten "the strong dose of sunlight it deserves," argue Karthik Ramanna and Allen Drescher. [New York Times]
  • The FBI plans to keep the method use to access a terrorist's iPhone secret. [Wall Street Journal]
  • This tweet by billionaire Donald Trump, the front runner for the Republican nomination for president, is still not showing up on his public timeline, with no explanation for the "shadow ban" from Twitter. [Breitbart]
  • While the "Meerkat Election" clearly isn't happening, Jim Rutenberg makes a convincing case for the role Snapchat is playing in this campaign cycle. NB: We do not endorse his tongue-in-cheek suggestion to ethically compromised pols to post embarrassing videos to Snapchat and then destroy them. [New York Times]
  • The Director of National Intelligence is considering publicly disclosing the number of American citizens caught up in online surveillance. [NPR]
  • The Government Accountability Project is calling attention to Friedrich Mosers’ new documentary about NSA whistleblowers, "A Good American," and joining a coalition of good government groups calling on the Obama administration to increase protections for whistleblowers. [Letter] [Whistleblower.org]
  • When asked about how the White House will bring the rest of the nation's police departments to voluntarily share data, Clarence Wardell II responded that it will take time. "We address it a bit in this NPR article, but the high level is that we start with the willing, show what's possible, and why it's valuable, then hopefully make it easier for the next group to see themselves doing it, and then to actually do it with tools and resources coming online over time that make it easier to do so for each iteration that wants to join. "

State and Local

 

  • The U.S. Supreme Court is going to weigh former Virgina Governor Bob McDonnell's corruption case. [Wall Street Journal]
  • Nine principals have cut deals in Detroit's school corruption case. [FreeP] [NPR]
  • Michigan State Police are tracking discussion of Flint's water crisis on social media. [MLive]
  • Flint residents are suing the Environmental Protection Agency. [Detroit News]
  • On that count, here's a valuable exploration of how Flint's water crisis happened. [ProPublica]
  • Related: About a third of the mayors surveyed by Politico are concerned that public safety is already at risk because of cost-saving decisions on critical infrastructure. [Politico]
  • The Missouri Legislature is considering a bill that "exempts data collected by state agencies under the federal Animal Disease Traceability Program from disclosure under Missouri's sunshine law," taking away the public's right to know about communications between regulators and large agricultural concerns. [Progress Missouri]
  • The Alliance Defending Freedom is behind model legislation focused on restricting access to bathrooms according to the sex listed on someone's birth certificate. [Mother Jones]
  • A federal judge upheld South Carolina's voter ID law. [New York Times]
  • John Oliver focused on Puerto Rico's debt crisis Sunday. "Last Week Tonight" has now become a culturally significant platform for explaining public policy issues in an accessible way and directing public interest towards areas that merit sunshine. [YouTube]

International

 

  • The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists is going to release a searchable database of more than 200,000 offshore entities listed in the Panama Papers. There's a notable, laudable caveat here: this won't be a data dump of all of the original documents. "ICIJ won’t release personal data en masse; the database will not include records of bank accounts and financial transactions, emails and other correspondence, passports and telephone numbers. The selected and limited information is being published in the public interest." [Public Integrity]
  • As usual, Corruption Currents is a must-read digest of news.
  • Australia plans to create a public registry of beneficial ownership of shell companies. [Guardian]
  • Corruption is crippling the development of women's sports in Afghanistan. Despite spending $1.5 million of American taxpayer's dollars on coeducational programs, U.S. officials declined to discuss the issue on the record. [New York Times]
  • This essay on statistics, charts, information design and our cognitive biases should be required reading for anyone working with data, government and communication. [ProPublica]

Tired of your boss/friend/intern/uncle forwarding you this email every morning? You can sign up here and have it delivered direct to your inbox!

We want to find and share the most important stories about open government around the world from the past 24 hours here. To do that, we'll need YOUR help. Please send your tips and feedback at [email protected]. If you would like suggest an event, email us by 7 am on the Monday prior to the event.

Apr 26, 2016

The sign that greeted me at 900 Michigan Ave, NE. (Click to see larger version.)

On a windy Thursday in D.C., I had a mission: I wanted to view the records of ad time purchased by a mysterious dark money group, Protect America’s Consumers.

I had searched our tool, Political Ad Sleuth, and found no results. Only broadcast television stations have to disclose their political ad information online, at least for now, and the ad I had seen was on CNN on Comcast in D.C. To view disclosures for ads run on cable, you still have to physically visit a location near you. Comcast’s website lists the D.C. location as 900 Michigan Ave., NE. I took the train there and found the building hidden behind an Enterprise Rent-A-Car:

Closed. I rattled the locked door of the administrative office and stood there uselessly for a minute before getting back on the train and heading to the location listed on the sign, an Xfinity retail store in a fancy new development at the Rhode Island Avenue Metro station.

When I got there, I saw this:

Sigh.

After I waited for about 20 minutes, watching a giant TV playing The Wendy Williams Show and the same commercial for flea medication about seven times, I was on my way again. A very helpful man called the Michigan Avenue office and told me that while the service office was closed, the administrative office was open, and there would in fact be a security guard there to let me in if I just waited around long enough. (Lesson learned: Stand around uselessly more.)

So, I got back on the Metro, back to Michigan Avenue, back to the building behind an Enterprise. The door was still locked, but an employee happened to be returning and he let me in. Another very nice man, Eric, led me through an empty hallway and into a very tiny room with one old computer, which whirred like it was on its last legs, and no printer.

One of the FCC filings I was looking for. (Click to see larger version.)

Eric used the computer and navigated a list of PDFs, organized by market. We sat and looked through the list until we found the ones for Protect America’s Consumers. Eric was unable to print the PDFs because there was no printer, so I wrote down the details I needed and took some pictures with my phone. Mission accomplished, sort of.

My interest in this group was sparked in the same way it would be for many average citizens, that is to say people who aren’t money-in-politics writers: Watching TV, I saw an ad for a group that I hadn’t heard of, and wondered what the deal was. But thanks to the utterly arcane disclosure policies still in place, I had to take a morning and a Metro to find out even basic details about the ad buy — and I still have no idea who’s truly behind this group. Plus, most people aren’t writers for nonprofits; most people can’t take hours of a weekday to go hang out with Eric and look through files. Eric told me that in seven years of working there, I was only the second person he had helped look for ad files.

Another money in politics researcher in D.C., Anna Massoglia of OpenSecrets.org, had a similar experience when she tried to find out about ads being run by a super PAC on Fox Business Network during a GOP debate:

“Verizon FiOS TV makes public inspection files available to be viewed through a limited number of retail stores. … The staff had apparently been briefed not to let me touch the computer so I had to tell the staff members what search terms to use. The clerk helping me was originally hesitant to even let me look at the computer but eventually broke when he realized how many hundreds of file names we would be looking through. The store clerk was patient and continued running searches based on terms I told him such as "Baby Got PAC" and other individuals with ties to the group for over an hour. We performed searches and manually scrolled through the political folders in every region, the entire visit was ultimately fruitless.”

In January, the FCC announced that cable TV networks would have to post the same types of disclosures on political ads that broadcast stations have to post. Soon, people won’t have to go to their local cable administrative office to find out this information. It can’t come soon enough.

Apr 26, 2016

A screenshot of an ad opposing the CFPB by Protect America's Consumers.

Since it formed in 2011, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has been under siege from financial institutions. Senate Republicans tried very hard to stop it from functioning at all, and since then they’ve tried to “tighten the leash” on the agency. Nearly five years since it officially opened, a new dark money group is taking aim at the agency — and no one has any idea who's behind it.

Protect America’s Consumers is a 501(c)(4) group that incorporated in November 2015. Its registered agent is North Rock Reports LLC, located at the same address in Warrenton, Va., as the law firm Holtzman Vogel Josefiak Torchinsky. According to Politico, “The firm specializes in untraceable pressure groups for conservative causes.” In 2012, Bloomberg News reported that the firm was tied to groups that had spent more than $250 million on the 2012 election, including Karl Rove’s American Crossroads. In 2015, the firm represented the super PAC Pursuing America’s Greatness before the U.S. District Court in D.C., defending its right to use Mike Huckabee’s name in its communications. Jill Vogel, a partner at the firm, is also a Virginia state senator; her website describes the firm as “a law firm that specializes in charity and nonprofit organizations, election law, and ethics.”

Another anti-CFPB organization, the U.S. Consumer Coalition (USCC), has distanced itself from Protect America’s Consumers, describing the group as an “attempt to trade on USCC’s successful CFPB reform campaign, the Consumer Protection Initiative.”

That might be because Protect America’s Consumers ads are controversial. They hit the CFPB for spending lavishly on a new renovation, though that’s up for debate, and for alleged racial discrimination. Their most-viewed ad on YouTube is titled "#SaveCFPB," saying, "The intentions of the CFPB were good." The ads include quotes from Democratic Reps. Maxine Waters, Calif., Keith Ellison, Minn., and Al Green, Texas, but all three have said their quotes were taken out of context. As Sam Brodey of MinnPost wrote:

Ellison thinks the ads are bogus — especially for the implication that he has some major problem with the bureau — and he’d like to let the people behind the ads know as much. There’s just one problem: Nobody knows who’s paying for them.

Because of Protect America’s Consumers’ 501(c)(4) status, we know very little about who actually runs this group. Its press releases list Steve Gates as the spokesman; Gates was the senior communications director at the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, a coal advocacy group that has spent millions on lobbying in the past. (It has since downsized.) According to Mother Jones:

ACCCE is best known for its ties to Bonner & Associates, the lobbying firm that got caught sending forged letters to Democratic members of Congress this summer. The letters, putatively written on behalf of military veterans and local chapters of civil rights groups, opposed the Waxman-Markey energy bill. In late October, congressional investigators found that ACCCE knew that Bonner was sending out phony letters on its behalf, but waited to tip off lawmakers until after they'd voted on the bill.

According to his LinkedIn page, Gates also works for Atlas Advocacy, where he “provides executive-level strategic guidance for multiple communications and social media projects in support of diverse public affairs clients.” Its website boasts of a “multi-level integrated advocacy approach” and warns of “increasing transparency demands”:

Spend smarter, not bigger. We use advertising as a surgical tool designed to take your message to a targeted audience, not the masses. We create messaging that slices through today’s oversaturated media environment to stand out from the crowd. Our media planning team focuses on finding unique pathways so that your message is delivered to the audience that matters.

Gates initially indicated he would be willing to comment for this story, but stopped responding after I sent him a list of questions.

Other than Gates and the ties to Holtzman Vogel, we know nothing about who runs the group, who funds it or what their goal is. Gates told Politico that the site “doesn't have any information about the group's sponsors, because ‘we don't want this to be seen as a partisan issue.’” He also denied that there was any link to the Koch brothers, who have heavily funded other groups that were incorporated by Holtzman Vogel, saying he’s a registered Democrat.

It’s also very difficult to find out how many ads Protect America's Consumers is running and where. According to a press release on its site, the group is running ads in Montana, North Dakota, Indiana and West Virginia. The ads “urge the taxpayers in those states to contact Senators Donnelly, Tester, Heitkamp and Manchin to encourage them to reform the CFPB.” All but Manchin are on the Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, and Donnelly is on the Subcommittee on Financial Institutions and Consumer Protection.

But no FCC disclosures have been posted online about these ads, meaning the group hasn’t run any ads on broadcast TV. A spokesperson for Kantar Media, a company that tracks advertising, said, “[Protect America's Consumers] appear to be limiting their ad campaign to the most popular cable news networks in a handful of markets.” I visited Comcast’s D.C. public file location and found the group spent $22,172 on ads in D.C. on Comcast stations since February. Tim Kay, director of political strategy at NCC Media, which tracks cable news, told me the group has spent $9,000 on ads in each of the four states listed in the press release, purchasing amounts between 56 spots (Indiana) and 425 spots (Montana). The ads ran on the same channels in every state: Fox News, MSNBC, CNN and the History channel. All of this means it spent about $58,000 on TV ads overall. The group's also been buying promoted tweets on Twitter.

Another campaign has popped up in response to Protect America’s Consumers: Protect Consumers From Protect America’s Consumers. A joint project of Allied Progress and American Family Voices, the website criticizes Protect America’s Consumers as “a shady front group,” calling it an “astroturf” campaign against the CFPB. The site debunks some of Protect America's Consumers' claims and includes a form to write your senator and tell them you support the CFPB. The site states: “Unlike the shadowy insiders behind the astroturf group 'Protect America's Consumers,' we're proud of who we are.”

Compared to Protect America's Consumers, that's certainly true. Allied Progress and American Family Voices both have publicly listed addresses and phone numbers, easily identified executive directors and a range of issues that they work on — meaning that, unlike Protect America's Consumers, they weren't set up solely to campaign on one issue. Protect America's Consumers doesn't even make the name of the person who registered their website public; their site is registered to "Whoisguard Protected" in Panama City, a firm that exists to protect the identity of domain owners. And I was able to reach by phone both Karl Frisch and Mike Lux, the executive directors of Allied Progress and American Family Voices respectively.

But they aren't perfectly transparent. Allied Progress is too new to appear in any nonprofit databases because, like Protect America’s Consumers, they haven’t filed a 990 yet, the form that lists out essential information on 501(c) groups. And as a nonprofit like Protect America’s Consumers, it isn't required to disclose its donors. That's also true of American Family Voices, though that group has existed since 2000.

Reps. Waters, Ellison and Green have written to the Federal Trade Commission asking them to investigate Protect America’s Consumers and its nonprofit status; that might be our only hope of finding out who’s behind the organization. Aside from that, unless the group tells us, we might never find out who’s spending this money to take down the CFPB.