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Magazines > Information Today > January/February 2016

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Information Today
Vol. 33 No. 1 — Jan/Feb 2016
DATABASE REVIEW
BUDDIE Winner Illuminates With Wonkery and Widgetry
By Mick O'Leary


It’s time for the BUDDIE award for the Best Unknown Database. This year’s winner is a potent counterforce at a time when the work of the public seems increasingly less public—a time of the shadowy “donor class,” of Citizens United-inspired anonymous campaign contributors, and of private email servers for public servants. Here’s a hint about this year’s winner. Fill in the blank: “___ is said to be the best of disinfectants. …”

The BUDDIE highlights valuable information sources in a digital environment that is increasingly homogenized, sensationalized, and dumbed-down. It has three criteria:

  • The database or website must have content that is valuable or of interest to a large class of information users.
  • It must be well-organized and well-maintained.
  • It must be unknown or, at least, less well-known than its merit deserves.

The envelope, please. The 2015 BUDDIE winner is … the Sunlight Foundation (sunlightfoundation.com). This organization skillfully and relentlessly casts bright light into the dark corners of government financial chicanery, influence peddling, and data suppression. It combines wonkery and widgetry along with classic investigative reporting and slick apps for getting its word out.

The Sunlight Foundation was founded in 2006 by Mark Klein, a lawyer and businessman with a taste for public-oriented projects, and political activist Ellen Miller. It is a 501(3)(c) nonprofit with more than 2 dozen employees in its Washington, D.C., office. Its name is drawn from a quote by Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis: “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants. …”

Its mission is to use “the tools of civic tech, open data, policy analysis and journalism to make our government and politics more accountable and transparent to all.” The Sunlight Foundation is true to its word. It is an old-school think tank with lots of wonkish analysis and policy prescriptions, but it also has a toolkit of interactive databases and mobile apps that help to bring its research to life.

Letting the Light In

The Sunlight Foundation’s work follows two major themes: Transparency of Money in Politics and Opening Government Data. Each of these themes features several projects that focus on their individual aspects. The Transparency of Money in Politics theme has, among others, separate projects delving into campaign spending, lobbying, and political ads. The Opening Government Data theme includes projects for releasing federal agency data and for making congressional research and reports available to the public.

Each project provides the Sunlight Foundation’s analysis of the topic, de tailed policy rec om mendations, and links to editorials and commentary on external sites. The foundation concentrates on U.S. politics at the national level, but also extends its analysis internationally and to the country’s states. It is rigorously nonpartisan. Its analysis and recommendations address systemic concerns, and politicians on both sides of the aisle are called to account when they run counter to the transparency principles that it champions. Its blog publishes substantive articles on new developments in the foundation’s areas of attention.

Its Widgetry Enlivens Its Wonkery

The Sunlight Foundation’s analysis and policy recommendations deal with topics of the highest importance and are thoroughly researched and persuasively articulated, but—truth be told—are not the most lively content on the web. But recall that “civic tech” is part of the Sunlight Foundation’s mission, and it is as attentive to making its content accessible as it is with creating it. Its Tools section has more than 20 databases and apps that reach into the innards of government operations and bring obscure but important financial and data practices into the light. Noteworthy tools include the following:

  • Influence Explorer, which tracks political contributions by recipient and contributor. It covers only members of the House of Representatives, because senators don’t file electronic reports—which is the target of a separate Sunlight Foundation project.
  • OpenCongress and Open States, which track bills throughout the legislative process
  • Party Time, which digs under the legislative facade and highlights where the influence actually occurs. It tracks the breakfasts, luncheons, golfing outings, receptions, and other events where legislators and candidates get their ears bent and pockets lined.
  • Capitol Words, which demonstrates the Sunlight Foundation’s tech side at its best. It turns the official record of congressional proceedings—the Congressional Record—into a searchable database where individual words and phrases can be tracked by member, party, state, and context.

The foundation’s theme analyses and policy recommendations represent its wonkery side, and its tools are its widgetry side. And yet, modestly buried in the Tools list, is the State of the Union Machine, a fiendishly clever app that shows the Sunlight Foundation’s fun side. Yes, even the diligently earnest foundation has a sense of humor. This app shows State of the Union addresses from prominent presidents such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln, as well as from recent officeholders such as Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. It then generates a combined State of the Union “address”—a hilarious mashup of platitudes, talking points, and non sequiturs that can bear an uncomfortable resemblance to a real State of the Union address. The fun continues when you use sliders to change the relative input from each president. If you want a pure Democrat mix, you turn up Clinton and Obama and turn off Bush and Reagan—or the reverse. Even if political wonkery is not to your taste, the State of the Union Machine is still great fun.

The Sunlight Foundation’s sprawling site has 18 individual topic areas and more than 20 tools. Some of these have separate domain names with distinctive looks and feels. Overall, the site integrates these disparate resources clearly and intuitively, so it’s easy to move from one topic to another and from the wonkish sections to their corresponding widgets.

Individual tools have good browse and search features, but the foundation’s overall site search is not quite to BUDDIE standards. (Its award status is achieved by its many other fine qualities.) The site search suggests that the entire site is searchable, but it actually searches only the blog.

Two Audiences

Most people, even those with high levels of civic interest, will not spend hours digging through the Sunlight Foundation’s analyses, recommendations, and tools. With its depth and technical content, the foundation is more for journalists, policy professionals in and out of government, and civic activists.

This doesn’t mean that the Sunlight Foundation is out of scope for the rest of us. Rather, the aforementioned professionals are our intermediaries to the organization. Their work as interpreters and advocates enables us to be informed by the foundation’s work when we vote, make political donations, write letters to legislators and local newspapers, and generally spread the word.

Ultimately, all of this starts with the tireless and exacting work of the Sunlight Foundation in bringing information of high public importance to light. The Sunlight Foundation is a deserving BUDDIE winner that does the arduous work of illuminating critically important information, so that the rest of us can run with it.


Mick O’Leary is the director of the library at Frederick Community College in Frederick, Md.
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