Sunlight Foundation Interview: Toward an Accountable, Transparent, and Open Government

By Timothy M. O'Brien
October 27, 2008

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The Sunlight Foundation describes its goal as follows:

"Our goal through our grant-making, blogging, projects, and technical leadership, is to use the power of the Internet to shine a light on the interplay of money, lobbying, influence and government in Washington in ways never before possible."

Two of the Sunlight Foundations's technical advisors Andrew Rasiej and Micah Sifry were the organizers of Personal Democracy Forum 2008 this July, a conference which focused on the intersection of technology and politics. It was at this conference that I had a chance to talk to Gabriela Schneider, Josh Ruihley, Greg Elin, and John Wonderlich of the Sunlight Foundation about technology and transparency.

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During this interview we discuss some of the work Sunlight has done of the past few years, the importance of transparency in government, and how technologists can help filter and process the vast amount of data that the US federal government produces. While this interview was conducted in July, the conviction of Sen. Stevens on seven counts of falsifying financial disclosure forms is timely. Stevens was no friend of what is called The Transparency Movement, a movement toward greater electronic transparency, and he held the lone secret hold on the Coburn-Obama Transparency Act of 2006.

As you listen to this interview, it will become clear that these four people are more than just a band of idealists with some XML documents, Python, and a vision. They are pragmatic, open-source advocates who are working with the Congress to move the institution toward a more open, more transparent operation. Along with other advocates like Carl Malamud and the League of Technical Voters, Sunlight has succeeded in bringing about the beginning of real transparency in Congress.

BEGIN INTERVIEW

Tim O'Brien: We're here at Personal Democracy Forum 2008, talking to
the Sunlight Foundation. This seems like I'm talking to all of the
Sunlight Foundation. Who wants to go first?

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Gabriela Schneider: I'm Gabriela Schneider. I'm Sunlight's
Communications Director.

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Josh Ruihley: I'm Josh Ruihley. I'm a Developer with Sunlight Labs.

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Greg Elin: I'm Greg Elin. I'm the Chief Data Architect at Sunlight Labs.

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John Wonderlich: My name's John Wonderlich. I'm Program
Director. I work on the advocacy and congressional aspects.

TO: What is it that you guys do?

GS: In a nutshell, we create greater transparency and public
accessibility to the work of Congress. We put information online so
that citizens can know who are their lawmakers, what bills are they
introducing, how are they voting, what are the influences that affect
them in their decision making, who's contributing to them.

And we are a grant-making non-profit based in DC. We were founded
two years ago. And we give out grants to other organizations like
the Center for Responsive Politics. Most people might know them from
their web site, Open Secrets. To Fed Spending - we helped fund the
creation of FedSpending.org, which is a project of OMB Watch, which
put all government grants and contracts online for the first time.
And they were so successful and inspired government to follow suit
and create their own web site, USASpending.gov, which uses licensing
from FedSpending.org.

TO: Okay. So in terms of working with Congress, are there
specific members of Congress that you've worked with?

JW: We have really good relationships with a lot of
members of Congress. Part of my work on the Open House Project was
inspired by blogging that happened online, but also because Speaker
Pelosi's staff right after the 2006 elections were very passionate
about the sort of things that were happening online and finding out
more about what the blogging community would like to see from the
House of Representatives as far as information access.

So everything that Sunlight does involves leveraging the power of the
internet and also leveraging the new communities that exist there.
And so a lot of our work involves the communities of bloggers and
technologists that exist now and are connecting online, and also a
community of staff and lawmakers that are increasingly using
technology.

TO: There's a bill sponsored by Obama and Coburn. Did that
have any affect on what the Sunlight Foundation does?

JW Absolutely. It released a lot more data and ended up in the
creation of the -

GE: The Sunlight Foundation and the community around the
Sunlight Foundation, or the community that which Sunlight is a part,
actually was very instrumental in getting that bill passed. We were
very - a number of people in the transparency community organizations
were very excited about that type of bill, because it was a bill to
make the information that was published - it was a bill to - the
Federal Accountability Transparency Act that Coburn and Obama
sponsored, was a bill to make information that was already available,
available to much more user-friendly format as a end user searchable
web site. The bill actually had a secret hold placed on it by a
senator and the community at large and Sunlight participated in an
effort to call every - a call was put out on the web to call every
member of the Senate, their office, and find out who had placed the
secret bill - the secret hold on the bill.

TO: That was Ted Stevens of Alaska?

GE: I turned out that it was Ted Stevens of Alaska, who had
placed the secret hold on the Federal Accountability and Transparency
Act, and because he was also the sponsor a of a $200 million earmark
the year before for the Bridge to Nowhere, he was kind of caught with
his pants down of trying - and the - and he more or less had to
capitulate. And so it's an interesting story in that the year before,
we were collaborating with a number of organization from the Heritage
Foundation to Porkbusters to Taxpayers, to put up information about
earmarks. We actually -

JW: Taxpayers for Commons Sense.

GE: Taxpayers for Common Sense. But we're putting information
up on line about earmarks, and then this bill came down the line and
one of the biggest earmarkers had placed a secret hold on that bill.
And it was really community effort that ended up releasing that secret
hold. And it's had - it's a huge impact, because on our - on the
FedSpending.org site that Gabriela mentioned, since it's inception,
there have been well over 6 million, probably 8 million or more - 8
million searches for federal contracts and grants. So there's clearly
a lot of pent up demand by the community at large for this
information.

TO: Respond to the following: A tool like this can used by a
member of the general public to find out who's sort of in bed with the
corporation, but it can also be used by corporate lobbyists to find
out who's the most compliant. Who wants to reply to that?

JW: I would say that any disclosure system should be viewed as
a blunt tool and carefully designed so it doesn't have unintended
consequences like ranking the most effective lobbyists and just
creating a new sort of market. So anytime that you implement new
disclosure requirements, it's important to think through the
implications. But I think what's really clear from all of our work on
Congressional disclosure is that more disclosure is better, even
though there are some unintended consequences to be aware of.

GE: I concur with my colleague, John Wonderlich, that the -
just like in Open Source, more transparency enables better uses, but
you want to be able to allow everyone to participate. Part of our
right as citizens is the right to petition our government and that
includes lobbying. We are not opposed to lobbying or lobbyists. We
are opposed to the lack of disclosure around those activities.

TO: Okay. So one question I had of you guys - it's very
technical - is how do you get the data from Congress? There's
something called Thomas. Is it in XML?

GE: We get the data through a variety of means, and there is a
growing community. There was very - as you probably - you may know
that there was an interesting meeting that was hosted at O'Reilly in
Sebastopol in December of 2007 that Carl Malamud from
PublicResource.org put together, around open government data and how
to make it more available. So we do get a lot of data from Thomas.
We get it from GAO. We get it from the GPO, the Government Printing
Offices, the -

JW: Government Printing Office.

GE: - Government Printing Office. We scrape it from different
sites and we get it - and we also access some of the data via other
parties like GovTrack.us that make - that get the data, scrape it, and
make it available in a friendlier XML format. But we did a very
interesting project just recently that we launched that I think Josh
will tell you about and how we got the data for that. Well, two
projects - we had two small projects, Capitol Words and Fortune 535,
which describe - which kind of describe the range of data that's
available.

JR: So CapitolWords.org - it's Capitol, T-O-L. It's
basically a microsite where we show the top word of the day or the top
word used in Congress for any given day. The data story for that is
very interesting. We have a project called LOUIS, which is
LOUISDB.org. For that, we actually go and scrape much of the federal
government. In this particular case, we crape the congressional
record from GPO. From the LOUIS API, we actually grab counts of each
word for each day and then display it on a web site. So if you go to
the web site, you'll see oil. I believe yesterday's word was energy.
And there's also a calendar view to where you - and then it goes back
to January of -

Gabriela Schneider: 2000.

JR: - 2000 to where you can see trends and words over time. So if you -

TO: So what were the most popular words say in Congress right
after the 9/11 attacks?

JR: On [September] 12, it was nation; on [September] 13, it was
terrorist; and on [September] 14, it was war.

GE: Josh has also worked on another project which describes
some of the data that's very difficult to get. The United States
government has a tradition of making information available. It also
has a tradition of making it available through third parties or in
formats that are hard to use. So we have another project which talks
about - which provided easier access to the - provided a way of
looking at the personal finances of members of Congress, and it is
legislated that members of Congress actually have to file biannual or
-

Gabriela Schneider: Annual.

GE: - annual financial disclosure documents that reveal what
their financial interest might be.

GS: But one thing that we've learned when we created Fortune
535, which is Fortune535.SunlightProjects.org, is that lawmakers -

GE: And that's a play on Fortune 500. It's just the number of
members of Congress.

GS: That's correct; number of members of Congress. We found
that the disclosure forms that lawmakers file annually, they're only
supposed to file their assets and liabilities in broad ranges, and
these ranges changed over years. So originally we went into the
basement of the Library of Congress and got the first filings that all
members of Congress filed going back to 1978, 'cause we wanted to
compare from when they first charted for those who are still in
tenure, to where they are now. And we found that well, they report in
ranges. There are a lot of things they don't have to report.

So the disclosure system is severely flawed and we created the site
to visualize the data about their assets to compare it to that of the
average American, but also to highlight the need for stronger
disclosure requirements, which we also spelled out on our web site
that we were very happy that Tim O'Reilly pointed out the Web 2.0
Expo, called PublicMarkup.org. We decided we wanted to create model
transparency legislation that we would take to members of Congress
and get their support on, but instead of just doing it the old
fashion way, we thought, "Well, we're Sunlight, so we're gonna put it
online." And we posted our legislation online in such a way - we
used Django - in such a way that anyone could comment on either the
entire bill, which had several titles and many sections, or section
by section.

We are right now redrafting our model bill based on feedback we got.
And we received over 120 comments for something that's really a
little bit, for me, wonky, very detailed looking at - but really
important. So how to improve the financial disclosure system. How
to improve how we know - Greg mentioned disclosure of lobbyists.
We're not against lobbyists, but we think it's the internet,
everyone's got a PDA, they can tell us as soon as they leave their
meeting, "I met with so and so, we discussed this." We don't need to
know six months after the fact. We need to know on a daily basis.
We have the technology to do it. We need to change the culture of
Congress to make it happen.

TO: So you would say that we need to know who's going into the
White House every single day, who's going into every Congressional
office every single day?

GS: I think the public wants to know that.

TO: Did you work with Lawrence Lessig on how they selected -

GE: Well, we did not - I mean, he started Change Congress on
his own. We were not involved in it. We certainly support - we're
supportive of transparency and -

GS: And we love the fact that Lessig is on board with our
mission, and we're supportive of Change Congress. We think that the
tide is turning. More and more people are seeing that they might have
worked on specific issues and how that's impacted by legislation, but
I think everyone, in fact, what I heard today and yesterday at
Personal Democracy forum is we need to get to the root cause. And the
root cause is not necessarily banning something like earmarks, but
it's letting the public know, "This is your tax money. Do you wanna
know how members of Congress are allocating that? Are they spending
money on a Bridge to Nowhere, or are they giving money for a
university to do health research?"

GE: Yeah, I mean, we - the Larry's stuff is fabulous. And I
think the - and I think his presentation - his ability to distill down
what things might be related to each other and our desire at Sunlight
to help people understand what things are related and create more
disclosure of that information. You want to be able to know - we
wanna be able to see if there is money that is coming from a
particular interest group or a particular industry that is influencing
decisions that members are making. It's not wrong for them to lobby
or to have an agenda, but people should understand - but it should be
transparent for everyone regarding that type of engagement. And if
that engagement is done through rational argument or it's just done
through spreading greenbacks around.

JW: I love the story about how Lessig came to be involved in
the Congressional reform movement. I think it's a familiar plot arc
that, at least, certainly us at Sunlight, all of us having our
different backgrounds and ending up at this foundation, a lot of
people are involved in different kinds of advocacy or have the
different issue that they're interested in come to realize that
transparency in technology and government are the fundamental thing
that's gonna enable a lot of those other reforms to happen. So the
fact that he approached Congressional transparency through the
intellectual property world that he was working in that was very legal
and very academic is very reassuring to me, because we - I think we
all have similar stories about how we came to be interested in
Congressional transparency.

TO: Are there any other efforts going on in any other branches
of government like the executive branch and the judicial branch?

JW: The judicial branch is the one that's probably lacking the
most, because the interest in Judicial affairs is largely limited to
legal professionals or reply on for-pay services to get their
information. I know that Carl Malamud that Greg mentioned before is
doing a lot of work on digitizing case law and other really excellent
projects about that. And at Cornell, there are legal information
students also putting a lot of legal information online and
discovering, much like we have, that there is a demand for legal
information that exists outside the legal profession that can afford
Lexis subscriptions. So there's a lot of similar work both to be done
both in the legal word and the judicial branch, and also in the
executive branch with all the conversations that are really starting
to be considered as we think about the next presidencies.

GE: Yeah, I mean, there are wonderful initiatives all over the
place. There are initiatives coming from - I mean, government is big.
There are a lot of agencies. There's a lot of groups. Sheila
Campbell who is here today talking about a group she heads up -

JR: The GSA?

GE: The GSA.

JR: WebContent.gov, sorry.

GE: WebContent.gov, which is really a site - it's a site and
it's a community of webmasters within the federal government. So -
and they are trying to provide information to people. They are - part
of their mission of the agencies are to serve people, you know, help
them with their Social Security and we saw - there was the greatest -
they - one of the sites that she demonstrated today was the TSA site
talking - because there was a big demand to understand what was
happening with airport security.

But at the same time, anything that happens in government, any type
of legal - any type of legislative process, any type of judicial
process, any type of executive branch process, has a life cycle. So
the question is, is who gets to find out what's happening in that
life cycle when? You know, is everybody in the country - we would
not tolerate certain groups knowing what the fed was going to do -
how the fed was going to move on a monetary decision or on interest
rates prior to the whole market knowing what that decision would be.
And yet, in other branches of government, in the executive branch and
in the congressional branch, we tolerate people being able to
purchase access to earlier points in the life cycle and be in the
life cycle in order to understand, or in order to, you - oh, I can't
think of the word.

JW: Influence?

GE: Well, influence or simply hedge what the - hedge their bets
of what the end of that life cycle process is going to be. If you
have an inside - if you have - are there groups that have an inside
track on what kind of decisions are gonna be made about
pharmaceuticals and that they can hedge their economic decisions and
bets around or does everybody find out at the same time?

TO: How do you balance transparency and secrecy?

GE: Oh, we can't talk about that.

(Laughter)

JW: So a lot of the lines are around what should be secret and
what shouldn't be secret are very well-established, but really
contentious, because it's always being tugged on. There's always -
the risks that government employees or legislatures are gonna use
secrecy to hide either their misdeeds or because of some conflict of
interest. So overall, the line's - like the line about what committee
hearing should be public and which ones shouldn't be public, they're
really well-established and no one denies that commercial secrets,
private information, or national security issues should be secret.
The question is, is that line being appropriately held and is the
oversight that is supposed to define line working properly?

JR: And what's theoretically available, is that meaningful available?

TO: If everything's transparent immediately, do you worry that
people are gonna start making things privileged?

JW: What do you mean?

TO: Say if I'm in Congress and I'm in a committee hearing and I
don't want people to hear what I'm saying because it's going out
through the Sunlight Foundation, do you worry that people are gonna
start misusing secrecy like we did in the lead-up to the war?

JW: I think that's a really valid concern, one of the
objections to our idea about members - that members should post the
requests that they've made for earmarks. The objection that I've
heard frequently is that if as a member office, we start to disclose
every earmark request, we'll just request everything and then on the
side, secretly go to the Appropriations Committee and say, "These are
the real requests, but we wanted to submit all of them because it's
good for us as an office to get reelected." So every - with every new
disclosure requirement, there are certainly, you know, just scurrying
back into the shadows, you know, new lines of influence that we have
to pay attention to. So I think that, that's certainly a concern.

GE: I think a quality disclosure regime or protocol reinforces
good behavior on participants in the same way that quality Open Source
licenses, or quality standards reinforce positive behavior and
benefits for the whole community. I don't think - it's not about - I
think we have not seen a lot of examples within the Open Source
community where in order to hide things, people are making things -
are making new things proprietary. They always had the ability to
make things proprietary. What we're finding out is that proprietary
cannot compete with Open Source and sharing and standardiz[ation].

JW: If you're interested in some more of the ethics around
transparency requirements, a great place to look is the Harvard
Transparency Policy Project, and they've released a series of white
papers and also several books studying, especially in economic
contexts, what the specific effects are of different kinds of
transparency requirements, in a very rigorous and enlightening way.
So that's a valuable place to look for it.

GS: The other thing is we're hoping to create public
expectation that information about government isn't secret. So people
will start to think, "Well, I thought earmarks were online. I thought
I could look up - I thought I could go to my member of Congress's
official web site and see what earmarks she is requesting. I thought
I could see what her daily schedule is, who is she meeting with." So
if we're trying to help encourage congress to do that and also let
citizens and bloggers know they should be expecting this sort of
information. So if they start to see a dearth of it, they'll know to
be asking the questions and demanding that information.

JW: Another thing that's only just starting to happen is that
members of Congress are starting to realize that open public
transparent advocacy processes are actually valuable to them, and it's
in - they're always looking for attention. They're always looking for
press mentions. They wanna be reelected. So the fact that the
internet allows them to reach so many people so cheaply, they're only
starting to understand the way that political rewards might work in a
networked congressional sphere. And as they start to realize that
more, we're gonna see a lot more exciting things happening online from
members of Congress, and from administrators in government.

TO: If you're a technical person, say you're a developer, and
you have a good idea for an algorithm or some sort of analysis of the
data, is there a place in the Sunlight Foundation for you to show up
and say, "I've got an idea?"

GE: Sure. I mean, you could - we can - there's lots of places
to go. We have a place - we're on Facebook. We're easy to email.
Any email that's sent to - what's our best email address?

GS: There's a form on our site, but info@SunlightFoundation.com.

GE: So info@SunlightFoundation.com would easily route people to
those of us in the labs. We also have a web form for people to submit
for grants between $500.00 and $5,000.00, which we call Sunlight
Transparency Grants, which we decide on a rolling basis. Yes?

GS: Mini-grants.

JR: Mini-grants.

GE: Mini-grants.

JW: We also have a very active email list. If you go to
TheOpenHouseProject.com, there's a link to the - it's a Google group
called The Open House Project Google Group. And it's a really active
email list of web developers and Congressional staff and bloggers and
media figures all talking about political information and what they'd
like to see and the ethics behind it and all those questions.

GE: We're really easy to find. I mean, you Google any of us,
you Google our names, you know, you Google - if you can't figure out
how to get in touch with us, you probably -

GS: And you can write to me, GSchneider, S-C-H-N-E-I-D-E-R, gschneider@SunlightFoundation.com.

TO: Or you can follow any of these people on Twitter. GregElin, jroo, stereogab, JohnWonderlich

[Crosstalk]

JR: ___________ just Twitter. I just remember. Right, exactly.

TO: Wire just released ReddIt as an Open Source application?
They did -

JR: Really?

TO: - last week. You can go get the source. Do you guys have
any plans to do anything similar?

JR: Oh, a lot of our code already is Open Source. Most - all
of our grantees - you know, the general rule is that any grant that we
give is for Open Source development and that which isn't Open Source
yet is really because we haven't gotten around to just cleaning it up
and putting it up on Google Code or some other place. But one of our
grantees, OpenCongress.org, they're Ruby on Rails and their site is
completely Open Source and it has already been taken. It was taken
last year in 2007, and someone created OpenMass.org, which covered the
Massachusetts State Legislation with it. So we are very much in favor
or it.

And I think that things have just - we have been - there's been such
a pent up demand to do things. We've just been running flat out in
the labs and doing different projects and working with grantees, but
I think that one of our big goals for the rest of 2008 is to have
more of a developer community. So we would really - we'd really love
to see other developers and coming in and asking - and helping us
with patches, and helping us with development. There's another
project that we're doing WatchDog.net, which has a call for
developers out that Aaron Schwartz is doing. And that's also -
that's already Open Source as well. And you asked about licenses.
Most of our stuff is GPL or MIT licensed, I think for the most part -

TO: He's nodding yes.

JR: I - GPL from what I know.

TO: Is that for any reason? Why do you choose GPL?

GE: I think that the main reason for choosing GPL would be that
it's very common. People are familiar with it, and it has the
reciprocity agreement so that if people were taking with it, that it
would - that their contributions would be made available back to
everybody else. I think that, that's the primary reason. But I think
a lot of people these days are doing the MIT license and that - and I
think that, that - we might have something that's released under that,
but, you know, our principle concern would be reciprocity more than a
particular type of use that people were putting things through.

TO: Do you do any work with the Mozilla Foundation? Do you
work with Frank Hecker?

JR: I was just talking to Frank today. I'm really, really
excited about FireFox 3.0. I think it's really fabulous. I guess,
you know, give them a free plug. I was learning a little bit more
from Frank Hecker of what they're thinking of doing for Thunderbird,
and I think that, that's very exciting. We would love to do some more
with the browser, and if there are any people out there who are XUL
developers, who want to help us do plug-ins, we'd love to hear from
them. And that would be great. And so we're on - so we've talked
with Frank and I think that it's - we'd would love to have more help
so that we can do things.

TO: Sheila Campbell in the plenary session, I believe, loaded
up Southwest Airlines and said she wishes more government cites could
be like Southwest Airlines. I'm just gonna go around the circle. If
wanna of you could choose a site that you want the government to be
more like, just let me know what it is.

JW: OpenCongress.org.

JR: I think I'd like the government to be - I think the
government - I'd like the government to be more like Google and
Amazon, you know. And I'd certainly from a developer perspective, I
would certainly want the government to be more like Google and Amazon.
I'd certainly want them to be more like the web services that Amazon
entered. That Amazon provides.

TO: So you don't want the government to be like a low-fare
airline without seat assignments.

JR: You know, if it - if the - I would happily work with a
government without seat assignments, because I think that's the
democratic process, and I think all of us should have the same access
- all of us have the same opportunity to get in the A, B, or C gate to
talk to our representatives. And I think at the same time, I don't
need to - if I can get on time service, delivered for an affordable
price, I'd be extremely happy with that

JW: If its cheap and gets us there safely, then excellent.

GS: I'd just like to add, I'd also love to see govt and
particular lawmakers and agency officials and FCC commissioners to
have an intimate conversation that the whole world can see on Twitter.
There are some lawmakers who are ahead of the curve who are engaging
the public directly, who are having public conversations having
debates on the floor with one another that are not just prepared
speeches. I like the intimacy web applications such as twitter in
terms of communicating directly with my members of congress.

TO: Seems like what you are doing is challenging entrenched
power. Are you worried that there's a conference of oil and tobacco
executives sitting around finding ways to make what you do less
possible?

JW: I think about that a lot in terms of the congressional
information services, the industry of information that's grown up
around congress. But I think that the improvements that we're making
are so incremental that the threat is not immediate to them. What
we're doing it applying constructive pressure that says to them you
need to stop what you are doing, and if you want people to continued
to be paid subscribers then you have to add more than you are already
doing because that information that you are giving to lobbyists soon
is going to be available to everyone.

END INTERVIEW


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