Sunlight Foundation Catalyst for Transparency

SPECIAL REPORT: Transparent Government Solutions


By Jeff Erlichman, 1105 Government Information Group Custom Media.

If you look at the history of the Internet, it has always been about creating a fertile soil for people to do interesting things at the edge of the network.

Alexander Ovechkin is not only an outstanding hockey player for the Washington Capitals, but he is an outstanding example of how an innovator can come along and can change the way an organization operates.

For years, the Capitals were plodding along, but when Ovechkin arrived all of a sudden their victory total shot up like the blade of a hockey stick, making the Capitals a prime example of what a “hockey stick” graph looks like.

Like the Washington Capitals, the “hockey stick” graph can be applied to Web 2.0 technologies explained Greg Elin of the Sunlight Foundation in a recent interview with 1105 Government Information Group Custom Media.

Sunlight’s goal is through grant-making, blogging, projects and technical leadership, 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. In Elin’s words, “we want to be a catalyst for using the Internet for greater transparency and accountability in understanding the workings of government.” 

Sunlight's rays have already shone on projects such as Open Congress, Open Secrets.org and MapLight.org. Through its Sunlight Labs, it helped build Congresspedia and funded OMBwatch.

“Right now in 2009, we are starting to hit that hockey curve of adoption of government transparency and Web 2.0 technology,” exclaimed Elin. “It is suddenly exploding.”

According to Elin the other word for transparency these days is the web. “I'm really excited looking at the http://www.recovery.gov and the other agency dot gov/recovery web pages and web sections that have launched, because I think what we are seeing is the blossoming of a lot of forces that have been at work for a while and some that are coming into being.”

Being a catalyst is important said Elin because “if you look at the history of the Internet and the history of the web, it has always been about creating a fertile soil for people to do interesting things at the edge of the network and connecting to each other rather than a fixed solution to a problem.”

Creating Model Behavior
One of the powerful things about Web 2.0 is that anybody can model behavior for the government. What we are learning from Web 2.0 is that is while the public needs online content, online no longer means just publishing it for a human to read. It also means publishing content for a machine to read, thus online means being both human and machine friendly.

Popular websites such as Flickr and Facebook have openness to other software and machine participation. They have APIs (an application programming interface, which is a set of routines, data structures, object classes and/or protocols that support the building of applications) that allow other developers to extend and add value whether it's to software or to data.

According to Elin, if you focus on making your information really friendly to human beings first, and you postpone making it machine friendly, what happens is you target your services to one or two communities and that’s it.

“If instead you make it friendly for humans and machines in the beginning, you end up creating something that's easier for you to use, that's easier to share, and that's easier for other people to build upon,” said Elin. “And on the web success is really about other people linking to, remixing, and building upon your information. That's what success is on the web, because the web is a network.”

So as an IT professional, if you design your information so that it's easier for other people to use, it turns out that it's easier for you to use. Prime examples of this are http://www.cdc.gov and http://www.irs.gov said Elin. And since the Web is a very plastic agile medium, what we did in the labs was make stuff rapidly; working side by side with subject matter experts so that everybody got the feel of what was possible.”

A concrete example of what Elin promotes is in the 2006 elections Sunlight went through the HHS budget bill for FY07, identifying earmarks in the bill and just typing them into a spread sheet. “We put those earmarks on a Google map and published a web page with the Google map and the earmarks,” Elin explained. “Now you could look up by zip code and it would zoom in to a particular scaled area of your zip code and you could actually see earmarks that were in that zip code.” That was the first time this was ever done.

Getting It
With technology when people “get it” is when they have a visceral personal experience, such as having a live video call or getting stock prices on your mobile phone. “These are very visceral experiences. So I think that one of the ways we used the technology was to make the data more presentable and to create visceral experiences.”

Elin says that what Sunlight does is make that data more understandable to people and sometimes that means putting it into a friendlier data format so that other developers can work with it. “Sometimes it means creating a web site as in the case of www.fedspending.org; sometimes it means creating visualizations like the earmarks. These are ways of presenting the information so that it becomes easier to work with - for example the Obama and Coburn sponsored Federal Financial and Accountability Transparency Act in 2006 which told OMB to create an end-user searchable web site of government contracting grants.”

Words Of Wisdom
Frequency drives efficiency – especially in information exchanges noted Elin. “If you have to design for information exchange up front, then you have to think about it in terms of real time or near real time information exchanges,” said Elin. “Having to deal with the information exchange every day or every week that forces IT organizations and individuals to create efficiencies around that exchange, and that includes efficiencies of security.”

The bottom line according to Elin is Web 2.0 and transparency makes information exchange horizontal and if people really adopt the technology then the silos will begin to shrink because the information will be shared and people can comment on it, people can add to it, people can collaborate in real time as it is going on.

Finally Elin is realistic in terms of making changes. “You don't change everything at once,” he counseled.

“The best way to start sharing your information is to work with someone's information they are sharing and begin to add that value to your information with their information.

So start on someone else's project. And identify low risk interesting experiments that involve short term investment. Because everyone has to learn how these things work and understand what tools we have.