I’m writing this from beautiful Bigfork, Montana, where I’ve had the pleasure of attending a gathering of government transparency experts and activists convened by the National Institute on Money in State Politics. The message here is a mixed one. Speakers such as Charles Davis, head of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, told harrowing tales of how state governments try to block access to public records. Yet we are also being treated to reports on new advances in disclosure and new online tools to access the data. I’ll focus here on the latter.
Ed Bender, executive director of the Institute and our host, demonstrated new features recently added to the Institute’s already remarkable Follow the Money website as well as features that will soon be introduced. These include:
- Committee Analysis Tool (or CAT). Using continuously updated legislative rosters compiled by Project Vote Smart, a user of Follow the Money can now quickly see all the contributions going to members of a given committee.
- Lobbyist Link. This feature, which is currently in beta form and is expected to launch in the next month or two, allows users to see the extent to which a large company or other institution is trying to influence policymaking throughout the country. For example, by searching Verizon, one will be able to see data on the giant phone company’s lobbying efforts in every state and the campaign contributions associated with those efforts. The Institute invites Digest readers to preview the tool, but recognize that work is still being done on matters such as variations in company names. Send comments to the Institute using the link on the beta page.
Sheila Krumholz and Susan Alger of the Center for Responsive Politics provided a tour of their recently redesigned Open Secrets site, the leading source for data on federal campaign contributions and related issues such as lobbying, financial disclosure by public officials and the revolving door between the public and private sectors. The redesign makes it possible for registered users to display a personalized set of data on particular candidates or donors every time the site is opened. This was described as just the first in a series of planned personalization tools. The Center is also considering adding data on earmarks and federal contracts to the site.
Greg Elin of the Sunlight Foundation, whose new site Fortune 535 I wrote about recently, wowed even this sophisticated crowd with his description of a prototype tool called Influence Explorer, which will allow one to dump a body of text, such as a newspaper article, into a database that will automatically extract key names and assemble data on those individuals. The initial application is limited to members of Congress (the data thus include items such as campaign contributions), but it could be extended to other groups of people or institutions.
Among the other speakers were Cindi Canary of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, who told about the origins of Open Book, a site that combines data from campaign contributions and procurement contracts in Illinois (which I covered last year), and Mike Smith, chief technology officer of the Washington Public Disclosure Commission, who described plans for upgrading the state’s already excellent site on campaign finance, lobbying and financial disclosure.
Hearing these presentations and others was both exciting to me as a researcher looking for new tools and inspiring evidence that proponents of transparency are making major inroads against the forces of darkness.