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Sunlight Foundation
Washington, DC

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

The Sunlight Foundation is:

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

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

Latest News

Aug 29, 2014

In early August, the Federal Communications Commission responded to a petition by the Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause and the Sunlight Foundation calling for a rule that would bring cable and satellite providers' already-existing political ad files online. It's the same requirement that all television broadcasters now comply with.

The FCC quickly acted on our petition, and issued a notice of proposed rulemaking just one week after receiving our petition. For those familiar with the FCC, the speed at which the agency moved on this was shocking.

And even better? They called for comments on whether to bring radio ad files online, too. Ours are here.

Another (unexpected) supporter of the FCC's plan? The National Association of Broadcasters which was extraordinarily opposed to putting television broadcasting political files online. They are demanding "regulatory parity."

We're still going through the comments, but opponents of disclosure generally argue that putting these files online will (1) be hard and (2) reveal company secrets. No matter how true (1) may be, it's vastly less impressive than how difficult it is for the public to access these files. To get them in their current, paper version, requires showing up to the broadcast center (do you know where your satellite provider's headquarters is?) during regular business hours, possibly paying a fee, and going through the files one by one, station by station. They're in the best position to make this change, and they're the only ones with the information. And, let's be honest, who keeps paper records anymore, anyway? Number two is a bit of a slicker argument, saying that online publishing reveals too much about what the station selling ad time charges for ad time. This might make sense, if the files weren't public anyway. In other words, if anyone is running from station to station, it isn't the researcher or journalist or citizen -- it's the companies who make billions every year from ad spending.

Ultimately, the proof will be in the pudding. Rulemaking takes time — a lot more than a week — but the swift response is a welcome amount of attention to a critical issue. If the FCC does decide to require cable, satellite and radio companies to put their files online, we may have an unprecedented view into political spending across all major media platforms (the biggest by revenue is broadcast television) by the 2016 elections, which we'll now call the oncoming storm.

Take a look at our comments below:

CLC CC Sunlight Radio Political File Comments Final Sunlight Foundation

Aug 29, 2014

A photo of Rep. Tom Reed, R-N.Y., smiling while holding an ice cream cone in a parking lot that was deleted from his official account.
Deleted photo via Politwoops.

In this week's roundup of deleted tweets from politicians archived by Politwoops, we examine a number of recent examples of messaging changes that came in the form of image deletions and replacements.

We start with the picture to the right of a grinning Rep. Tom Reed, R-N.Y., enjoying an ice cream while standing alone in a parking lot. It was deleted from his official Twitter account after a minute and replaced by another image of Reed (not grinning) inside the store with a woman in the background. Whoever is responsible for managing his account did not respond to a request for comment and Politwoops remains the only resource to research the subtle manicuring of U.S. politicians on Twitter.

Another seemingly innocuous image deleted forever from a politician's public Twitter feed this week was the photograph of gubernatorial candidate and Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, D-Md., holding two puppies seen below with the message, "In honor of #NationalDogDay!"

Gubernatorial candidate and Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, D-Md., holds two puppies in a photo deleted from his campaign Twitter account and caught by Politwoops.
Delete photo via Politwoops.

After 30 minutes, whoever runs his campaign Twitter account calculated that this image was too much for the public to handle and deleted it. Like the social media experts over at the Reed campaign, the Brown campaign ignored multiple requests for comment.

Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., joined in the National Dog Day celebrations with a tweet that initially said, "It's #NationalDogDay, but at the Foxx house, every day is #SultanDay. I'm on the road now, but will post a pic tomorrow." Perhaps due to confusion over the infrequently used #SultanDay or a lack of common knowledge about the identity of "Sultan," that tweet was deleted from her official account after eight minutes and replaced with a tweet saying, "It's #NationalDogDay, but our boxer Sultan thinks every day at the Foxx house is #SultanDay. I'm on the road, but will post a pic tomorrow." Fortunately, Foxx or someone running her account came through with that photo the next day, as promised.

A photo of Rep. Bill Enyart, D-Ill., deleted from his official Twitter feed and caught by Politwoops.
Photo via Politwoops.

The campaign account for Rep. Bill Enyart, D-Ill., deleted a tweet over the weekend that said, "A big thanks to Abbey for her hospitality at the St. Nicholas Brew Pub in #DuQuoin!" with the image seen to the right. The appreciative note and attached photo of the smiling monogrammed politician in a pub were scrubbed from his feed after 33 minutes for unknown reasons as his office refused to respond to my inquiry.

Politwoops made the news a few times this week including Politico, who citing the project for catching politicians deleting their ALS challenge tweets. KCEN-TV in Texas did a segment on the same topic and U.S. News and World Report did a piece linking to a number of tweets archived by Politwoops.

I hope everyone spends the holiday weekend scouring Politwoops for politicians we're missing and that when we return next Tuesday our inbox will be full of suggestions. Have a good one!

Aug 29, 2014

Smoke stacks. Photo credit: Library of Congress

Calculating the social cost of carbon: In a report released August 25, the General Accountability Office (GAO) concluded that the White House's analysis of the politically charged "social cost of carbon" (reported here by Sunlight) estimate passes muster. The review was requested by Sen. David Vitter, R-La., and Reps. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif. and John Culberson, R-Texas, all harsh critics of President Barack Obama's efforts to combat climate change. Vitter and Culberson count the oil and gas industry among their major donors: Vitter has gotten more than $1 million; and Culberson, nearly $600,000. Hunter's top contributing industries include manufacturers, who have sent his campaigns more than $85,000. The 32-page report documents the by-the-book process used by the White House coordinating with other agencies to calculate the estimate, while also disclosing "several limitations of the estimates and areas that the working group identified as being in need of additional research." (Credit: Scout, Influence Explorer.)

Restricting common narcotic pain killers: Vicodin and other common hydrocodone combination products prescribed widely to patients for pain will now be considered "class II" drugs subject to stricter regulation, according to a new final rule published by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) on August 22. This action follow's the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) recommendation last year that the drugs be reclassified because of increasing concern "about the abuse and misuse of opioid products, which have sadly reached epidemic proportions in certain parts of the United States." While most of the commenters on the earlier proposed rule appeared to support the decision, not everyone was happy. For example, drug maker Actavis in April wrote the DEA, "if finalized, this action would impose significant and burdensome new regulatory controls and administrative, civil, and criminal sanctions on companies that handle....HCPs." These comments were prepared by one of the lobbying firms hired by the company, Arent Fox, whose lobbyists include former Rep. Phil English, R-Pa. Actavis has been in the news lately as a poster company for the controversial tax avoidance strategy of "tax inversion," where a company locates base operations overseas to avoid paying full U.S. tax rates. (Credit: Docket Wrench, Influence Explorer.)

Comments still rolling in on greenhouse gases, cigars: Last week the Environmental Protection Agency received more than 3,000 more comments on a proposal to regulate greenhouse gases emitted by existing power plants, described in our report here. Overall, Regulations.gov reports nearly 35,000 comments received since the proposal was issued in early July. Another top magnet for comments, garnering more than 4,700, was the FDA's proposal to regulate cigars, as we reported here. (Credit: Docket Wrench.)

Aug 29, 2014

An image of Solomon Kahn, Sunlight Foundation OpenGov Grantee
Solomon Kahn, Sunlight Foundation OpenGov Grantee and Director of Analytics at Paperless Post. Image credit: Solomon Kahn.

New programming tools and technologies have opened up a whole new way for people to explore government data online. We are just at the beginning of an explosion of civic resources built using this new technology. Here's my story of building useful civic tools over the past two years.

I believe data is only useful when the people who need it can use it to make decisions. Some data is important for everyone to know and making it transparent means not just releasing it to the public, but giving the public tools to understand it. Too often, even though data is "public", it doesn't help the public's understanding of the issues most affecting them.

One example of this is the U.S. Budget. The U.S. Budget has always been published, but it is published in a format that normal people couldn't make any sense of. As a result, people are forced to make political decisions based on only vague ideas about how the U.S. spends and makes money.

My first civic project was to build a visualization to bring transparency to the U.S. Budget and you can see the result here. It is an interactive visualization of the U.S. Budget, going back 35 years so that you can understand exactly how the U.S. spends money, as well as get historical context for the spending you see.

After working on the budget visualization, I wanted to work on another civic problem where important data existed, but regular people weren't able to use that data to make decisions. I was inspired by the many people working on campaign finance reform and wanted to try and build a tool to help.

All data work happens in stages. It is evolutionary, not revolutionary. New work is only possible because of the foundation that others have built. At the beginning there is no data, so the most important thing is to start collecting it. Next you need to make it accessible, even if only to people who can program. After that, you can make it accessible to everyone. The last stage is to make it useful for everyone. Campaign finance data has challenges at each of these stages.

The Center for Responsive Politics cleans Federal Election Commission campaign finance data and publishes it online. They act as a source for many researchers and journalists who need information on political fundraising. They also make their data available as a bulk download for those who have the programming ability to work with that kind of data. These raw data dumps power the Sunlight Foundation's Influence Explorer project.

An image of the U.S. Budget.
A visualization of the U.S. Budget. Image credit: Solomon Kahn

The challenge with all those data files, is that it takes a lot of programming knowledge to make them useful. I wanted to take those data dump files and turn them into a public database. That process is finished and open sourced here. Now, anyone who knows SQL can use this data.

However, most people can't use SQL, so if the goal is to eventually turn this data into something that normal people can use to make decisions, we need to move on to the next stage.

A few people and organizations are working on this problem and each is approaching it from a different angle. Influence Explorer from the Sunlight Foundation focuses on connecting multiple data sources, incorporating federal and state data and showing information on fundraising, lobbying, earmarks and more.

I'm currently working on a project that takes a slightly different angle and goes deep into just the opensecrets federal campaign finance database. The project is an interactive visualization to explore politicians similar to how the budget visualization let people explore the budget. You will be able to look at lots of data at a high level and then zoom in to see more details when things seem interesting. With the help we received from a Sunlight Foundation OpenGov Grant, the project should be completed in 2015.

So, why should you care about this story?

I used to think that to have an impact was an all or nothing thing. Either I was completely devoting my career to fixing political issues, or I wouldn't be able to accomplish anything. What the last two years have taught me is that there is a lot of space between all and nothing.

You, as a normal person with a normal job, can do important civic work in a few hours a week. This applies to both programmers and non-programmers. If you want to contribute, find a topic you care about, get in touch with an organization that deals with that topic and ask where they need help. If that doesn't work and you don't know where to start, feel free to reach out to me on twitter and I will send you to some projects that could really use your help.

Solomon Kahn is a Sunlight Foundation OpenGov Grantee and the Director of Analytics at Paperless Post. He is also an Edmond J. Safra Network Fellow at Harvard University. He can be found online at solomonkahn.com or on twitter @SolomonKahn

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

Aug 29, 2014

Keep reading for today's look at #OpenGov news, events, and analysis, including a military grade lobbying effort, teaching OAS members about transparency, and balancing bike share.   A newspaper with the headline Open Gov

National News

  • An Executive Order, 12333, issued by President Reagan is one of the foundational documents of the current surveillance system. Some say that it allows a wide ranging and unconstitutional amount of data collection. (Ars Technica)
  • Last year stories emerged about an Iowa State Senator that was paid by Ron Paul's Presidential campaign to switch his endorsement from Michelle Bachmann to Paul. Kent Sorenson denied the allegations at the time, both in public and in court. But this week, he pleaded guilty to accepting money from both campaigns and eventually switching sides when Paul offered him a better deal. (Washington Post)
  • The tragic events in Ferguson, Missouri publicized the military grade equipment being used in many police departments across the country. Now, police associations are gearing up for a major lobbying fight to save their access to military surplus like grenade launchers, automatic weapons, and heavily armored vehicles. (The Hill)

International News

  • The Organization of American States is launching a virtual class to teach more than 200 officials from the region "strategies for open government in the Americas". (NFOIC)

State and Local News

  • Email retention practices in Pennsylvania have advocates and archivists worried that seemingly innocuous, but potentially historically relevant emails may be deleted without a second thought. Currently, employees are encouraged to clean up their emails on a regular basis and archives are only kept for 5 days, putting decisions about the future value of these records in the hands of those that originally created them rather than an impartial professional. (Government Technology)
  • Bike share systems are becoming popular in cities around the world. Making sure that users can access and park bikes when they want to is creating some interesting problems for mathematicians, who are working up algorithms to ensure that systems are properly balanced, ensuring customer satisfaction and saving operators time and money. (Government Executive)

Do you want to track transparency news? You can follow the progress of relevant bills, court cases, and regulations using Scout. You can also get Today in #OpenGov sent directly to your preferred news reader. If you would like suggest an event, please email mrumsey@sunlightfoundation.com by 7 am on the Monday prior to the event. 

Aug 28, 2014

Keep reading for today's look at #OpenGov news, events, and analysis, including brewery politics, an "election" in Turkey, and Civic Ninjas.  A newspaper with the headline Open Gov

National News

  • Despite an increasing amount of frustration with Congress and politics, campaign finance reform has not become a major campaign issue. (Washington Post)
  • New Belgium Brewery, America's third largest craft brewery, is dipping its toes into the political waters with a new PAC. The company plans to focus on brewery specific legislation as well as topics, such as water quality and sustainable transportation, that it sees as key to its mission and morals. (National Journal)
  • A new health data reporting tool that allows organizations using it to easily get their public data online. Various states are now using the standardized system. (Government Technology)
  • Consumer's have personal data about their habits sold, traded, and used for a variety of reasons. There is little transparency in this process and consumers have little access to information about themselves. This post tries to outline a reasonable system of transparency for consumer data. (Ad Exchanger)

International News

  • Turkish citizens participated in their first direct presidential election this month, but there have been a number of red flags indicating that the vote was not as open or transparent as it should have been. (Transparency International)

State and Local News

  • New York City is embracing the positive impact that easy to understand transportation data can have on the average commuter's day. The City's Department of Transportation has a mobile friendly site that puts all that information in one place. (Government Executive)
  • Civic Ninja's, a civic hacking group, is looking to build long term solutions with a focus on disaster response and recovery efforts. (Government Technology)

Do you want to track transparency news? You can follow the progress of relevant bills, court cases, and regulations using Scout. You can also get Today in #OpenGov sent directly to your preferred news reader. If you would like suggest an event, please email mrumsey@sunlightfoundation.com by 7 am on the Monday prior to the event. 

Aug 27, 2014

Keep reading for today's look at #OpenGov news, events, and analysis, including dissapearing court documents, a framework for assesing social value in open data, and news from several governors races.A newspaper with the headline Open Gov

National News

  • Most Inspectors General have complied with a 2012 law that required them to provide information about the rights and protections afforded to whistleblowers and appoint an ombudsman to oversee the effort. However, a new report found that several high profile agencies, including DHS and USAID, have done little to surface relevant information online. (POGO)
  • Despite statements decrying the McCutcheon decision, Senate Democrats are embracing the new mega-fundraising committees that arose in its wake. (Public Integrity)
  • More than a decade's worth of documents from four US appeals and one bankruptcy court have been taken offline. The documents were removed as part of an "upgrade" to the PACER system. Don't worry though, the public interest has been upheld, assuming you can fly to New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and DC to request the documents in person. (Ars Technica)

International News

  • A new paper in the Future Internet Journal attempts to outline a framework for taking social value into account while open data initiatives make release decisions. (The Gov Lab)
  • If Paraguay's President signs a pending access to information law, the country will become the 100th in the world to institutionalize the Right to Know. (Access Info)

State and Local News

  • Governor Andrew Cuomo's (D-NY) questionable handling of corruption in his state has cost him the endorsement of the New York Times in the his upcoming reelection bid. (New York Times)
  • There is a duel afoot in New Hampshire as both major parties accuse each other of improper spending, fundraising, and campaign finance reporting in the governor's race. (Washington Times)
  • Some of Chicago's open data Gurus sat down with Code for America to discuss the technical aspects of opening data. (Code for America)

Events Today

Do you want to track transparency news? You can follow the progress of relevant bills, court cases, and regulations using Scout. You can also get Today in #OpenGov sent directly to your preferred news reader. If you would like suggest an event, please email mrumsey@sunlightfoundation.com by 7 am on the Monday prior to the event. 

Aug 26, 2014

The logos of the Sunlight Foundation and ReThink Media

The height of the 2014 midterm election season is nearly upon us, generating unheard of sums of political spending, often coming from “dark money” sources that do not have to disclose their donors. In addition, there is a risk of five-, six- or even seven-figure hard money contributions flowing to the political parties and party leadership. In competitive Senate races, it’s nearly impossible to track who’s giving to whom in real time since Senate candidates still file their campaign finance reports on paper, delaying disclosure. Meanwhile, reports of a steady decrease in lobbying points not to a reduction in K Street’s power, but rather to more and more influence peddlers going underground.

On Sept. 16, the Sunlight Foundation and ReThink Media will host a special morning conversation with Sens. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Angus King, I-Maine, (invited) followed by a panel of money-in-politics experts from nonprofits, newsrooms and academia. We will discuss the quickly changing landscape of political spending, how it’s getting harder to track influence and the reforms being debated right now in Congress to level the playing field.

The price we pay for the current campaign finance system is high: A dearth of accountability from our elected officials; domination of political speech by a limited number of the super wealthy; and increased voter apathy are just a few symptoms. Join this important discussion by RSVP’ing today. Space is limited, sign up soon!