Micah Sifry: Our next speak­er is Ellen Miller of the Sunlight Foundation and before that Center for Responsive Politics and Public Campaign. She’s been in this busi­ness for a very long time. 

Ethan says this is nepo­tism. I don’t think it’s nepo­tism but there’s clear­ly a rela­tion­ship. I’m an advi­sor to the Sunlight Foundation. Ellen and I are close col­lab­o­ra­tors. So I’m actu­al­ly going to kin­da start and then hand the ball off to her—

Audience mem­ber [Ethan Zuckerman?]: We’ll just call it collaboration.

Sifry: Collaboration, then. It’s a com­mu­ni­ty of inter­est, not a con­flict of inter­est. Especially if we’re being trans­par­ent about it. 

So some­body asked ear­li­er today about not truthi­ness but trustiness and whether we could some­how sig­nal it in clear­er ways. And I sort of elbowed Ellen and I said, Remember that slide we built five years ago when we were try­ing to con­vince some poten­tial fun­ders of the Sunlight Foundation of like where we would like to get to eventually?” 

And so this does­n’t exist. This is a mock­up. It’s not very good, in that it has­n’t real­ly been designed to look that good. But it gives you an idea of a pos­si­ble direc­tion where you might be able to get to some­day (maybe the hack­ers tomor­row can be a lit­tle inspired by this), of real­ly col­lect­ing all the rel­e­vant infor­ma­tion about a politi­cian and his vot­ing record, his cam­paign con­tri­bu­tion back­ground. Who he’s meet­ing with in terms of his con­gres­sion­al sched­ule. What he’s ear­mark­ing. What kind of feed­back he’s get­ting from constituents. 

Obviously some of this data does­n’t exist, Or if it does it’s dis­persed. And some of it does exist. And I think what Ellen is going to do is show us what Sunlight actu­al­ly is putting togeth­er already, and which is hope­ful­ly part of this infra­struc­ture of mak­ing a stronger immune sys­tem. Ellen?

Ellen Miller: Hi every­body. I used choco­late as my caf­feine intake a few min­utes ago, so I’ve got sug­ar and caf­feine in me. Thanks Micah. In the inter­est of full dis­clo­sure I should tell you that the oth­er co-host of this this pan­el, Zephyr Teachout, also worked with Sunlight in the ear­ly days. In fact, she worked to devel­op this piece of infor­ma­tion, the con­gres­sion­al sched­ule, which we real­ly have now for about four mem­bers of Congress. So we have a ways to go on that.

Alright. So I’m going to show you very quick­ly a cou­ple of things. I’ve long had this fan­ta­sy in my entire career, which has most­ly been in the field a mon­ey and pol­i­tics, to be able to find one place where you could enter a search term like this one, General Electric,” and see every­thing you could find out about a com­pa­ny, a cor­po­rate profile—what they do in Washington, what they do at the state lev­el. And Sunlight is mov­ing in that direc­tion. So you would think, and most of you prob­a­bly know, we have a site and you look at the cam­paign finance pro­file of a com­pa­ny like General Electric at the state ver­sus fed­er­al lev­el. So that was an accom­plish­ment to actu­al­ly mash those two data sets togeth­er, and the data is pro­vid­ed by our friends at the National Institute on Money in State Politics and the Center for Responsive Politics. 

But that’s not enough. That’s the influ­ence indus­try, right? So what else in the influ­ence indus­try is impor­tant? Lobbying data is impor­tant. More mon­ey’s spent on lob­by­ing than actu­al­ly in cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions. So we added this into the same data set. A lot of oth­er stuff that’s real­ly impor­tant that shows a cor­po­rate pro­file. So in this soft­ware I was talk­ing about ear­li­er that uses nat­ur­al lan­guage pro­cess­ing soft­ware, we found that we are able to actu­al­ly scrape the web site reg​u​la​tions​.gov, where all of gov­ern­ment (or 89% per­cent or some­thing of gov­ern­ment) puts all of its reg­u­la­tions online and you can comment. 

So in this par­tic­u­lar search this is still look­ing at General Electric’s com­ments on pend­ing rules and reg­u­la­tions. This was a major move for­ward for us. 

And then we thought, what oth­er data might be rel­e­vant to a cor­po­rate pro­file in Washington. We thought well, maybe EPA vio­la­tions. So we import­ed— I make it sound so easy. taught me who report­ed the EPA ECHO data­base into this. And so here what you have is a list of the times General Electric has been cit­ed by the EPA

We won­dered maybe whether General Electric, or any oth­er cor­po­ra­tion, how much they’d received in fed­er­al grants or contracts—mostly con­tracts. There’s that infor­ma­tion. We brought that in as well. We won­dered if any of these con­trac­tors, any of these cor­po­ra­tions, had been cit­ed on the con­trac­tor mis­con­duct list. The project on gov­ern­ment over­sight gave us their list of the con­trac­tor mis­con­duct data­base, and that’s incor­po­rat­ed. There’s more on the EPA violations. 

And then there are these things called fed­er­al advi­so­ry com­mit­tees. So does any­body from GE sit on a fed­er­al advi­so­ry com­mit­tee? Yeah. A lot. So National Science Foundation, twenty-eight peo­ple sit on six­teen com­mit­tees, just from General Electric alone. So you see where we’re going with this. And this data base is designed at least to be infi­nite­ly expandable. 

So this next site— Is this Influence Explorer? This is Checking Influence. We real­ly want to take the infor­ma­tion out of those large data­bas­es, and the first one I showed to you, Influence Explorer, is real­ly some­thing more for a jour­nal­ist to use. So we built a plu­g­in, which is what this reflects, so that you can up your check­ing account or your cred­it card account, and take a look at the enti­ties that you’re doing busi­ness with and see whether they’re giv­ing to Democrats or Republicans. Just infor­ma­tion you might want to have. 

We built anoth­er web site called Polygraft, to enable you to fil­ter a news sto­ry like this one which appeared in the paper today… Filter it through this enor­mous influ­ence explor­er data­base, and show you down the right-hand side the con­nec­tion between the enti­ties men­tioned in this news arti­cle. And one of my long-time friends, Sheila Kaplan, a long-time inves­tiga­tive reporter said she finds it so very inter­est­ing to see the con­nec­tions that she did­n’t even always know were there. And I don’t know if she uses it before she pub­lish­es every sto­ry, but that is the idea, that jour­nal­ists and cit­i­zens would look to find the sto­ry behind the story. 

So this is Inbox Influence. So this is same data set. This is a Gmail plu­g­in. You can put it right into your Gmail account. And any­one who sends you an email will be fil­tered through this enor­mous same data­base of Influence Explorer, and you can get an indi­ca­tion on the right-hand side as to whether the per­son who’s writ­ing you an email has actu­al­ly made cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions, and how much. 

This one actu­al­ly stopped our office dead in its tracks for about forty-eight hours as we fil­tered what our friends were send­ing to us. This is all pub­lic infor­ma­tion. The idea is to make this infor­ma­tion more and more per­son­al, more direct­ly involved with the things that you you are par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ed in. 

This is a detail on this. [slide not shown in record­ing] This is an email that Micah received this morn­ing. And this is what he found, in detail. 

So that’s the last slide that I want to show you. We have a mobile app which is actu­al­ly in devel­op­ment now, which is a bar code scan­ner. And the idea is to scan a prod­uct, deter­mine which com­pa­ny made that prod­uct, and to look at what their cam­paign con­tri­bu­tion pro­file looks like, for peo­ple who are inter­est­ed. It’s not even in the alpha phase, it’s can this pos­si­bly work” phase, and the jury is still actu­al­ly out. Except we did scan­ner Coca-Cola can and it worked on that and it worked on a Dr. Pepper can as well. 

So stay tuned, in terms of the kinds of things that we’re able to pro­duce that will make a dif­fer­ence on the streets, and putting this infor­ma­tion eas­i­ly into the hands of peo­ple who can now they can use it to to fil­ter and make choic­es that they’re con­cerned about. Thanks.

Further Reference

Truthiness in Digital Media event site