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Cost of Wars Since 2001

Rio’s Carnaval: An Allegory of the City

As finalists for this year’s Wheelwright Prize gathered at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design (GSD) to present their research, Gia Wolff, the inaugural winner of the $100,000 traveling fellowship, returned after two years of funded research to give a lecture. The Brooklyn-based architect and GSD alumna won the prize for Floating City: The […] […]

How to Save Water, the Californian Way (Part 2)

For the past century, much of California has relied on an inherently fragile and unreliable imported water infrastructure. While the current crisis attracts the attention of the media and public, the environmental community and government have been actively pursuing solutions for decades. These efforts have resulted in long-term water conservation. For example, Los Angeles has […] […]

Deletes of the Week: Why one politician deletes tweets on purpose

A deleted tweet along with explanations from the official Twitter account of Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas.
Deletions via Politwoops.

Most members of Congress don’t like to talk about their deleted tweets and regularly ignore my requests for comment, but there’s one member who explains deletions before I even ask: Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas.

When a deletion shows up in Politwoops, it can be challenging to divine the context and reason for its removal. Was it a minor typo that they never bothered to fix in a replacement tweet? Was it a potential political liability? Was it a staffer in the wrong account? Was the information wrong? When it’s not clear, I ask why and rarely hear back.

Farenthold, like many active politicians on Twitter, makes mistakes and occasionally deletes a tweet. The difference is that he will often follow up a deletion with a tweet explaining what happened, which he then deletes so it appears in Politwoops next to the original deletion. This week he deleted a tweet with two Twitter handles and then deleted an explanation for it, saying, “Someone accidentally pocket tweeted on that last one.” The deleted explanation and the original deletion show up together in Politwoops, as seen in the photo to the right.

A deleted photo from a tweet by the official account of Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, that was archived in Politwoops.
Deleted photo via Politwoops.

Adding context to a deletion with a simple explanation keeps the removed tweet from being taken out of context and humanizes the politician by showing nobody is above simple mistakes — when most politicians refuse to admit or show any flaws in messaging. When reached for comment on this unusual policy, a spokesman for Farenthold said:

Quite frankly, once something is on the internet you’re never getting it back. With Twitter, the Congressman believes even if something goes out that is then deleted people should know why. So the office policy is to proactively explain deleted tweets.

Farenthold’s account first implemented this strategy way back in June of 2013, when Farenthold deleted this picture on the left along with a message saying, “Sun ruins the photo bit I’m about to board my first @AmericanAir flight.” After 17 minutes the tweet was deleted, and a few minutes later another deletion showed up explaining, “I deleted that last tweet because I got a better picture when the tail of another plane blocked the sun.” That tweet with the better picture attached, appeared a few minutes later and is still on his official feed.

This policy of doing damage control before others notice stands in stark contrast to the attitude embodied in a new app called Clear, created by Ethan Czahor. The app scans a user’s social media accounts to flag posts that could pose a liability so they can be deleted before anyone notices. Czahor is familiar with this issue: He resigned due to old statements disparaging women and gay men on social media a day after being hired as the chief technology officer of the political action committee for likely 2016 presidential candidate Jeb Bush. An attempt to test the app was met with a waiting list numbering nearly 20,000, but if any politicians in Politwoops attempt to remove tweets, you know where you can find them.

Have a great weekend, and email me if you notice any politicians we’re missing in our system.


It’s not just Bill Shuster: We need better lobbying disclosure

House lawmaker Bill Shuster and lobbyist Shelley Rubino recently went public with their relationship.

On July 28, 2014, Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., the powerful chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, called for a vote on a bill he’d sponsored, the Transparent Airfares Act. Forbes contributor Andrew Bender, who writes regularly on travel, noted that it “does the opposite of what the name implies” — but it garnered 50 co-sponsors including former presidential candidate Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., current House Financial Services Chair Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, and the current ranking member of the Transportation Committee, Peter DeFazio, D-Ore. The bill passed the House on a voice vote.

Shuster’s measure, which died in the Senate, would have allowed airlines to exclude things like federal fees and taxes when telling customers the price of an airline ticket. So that $350 round trip special to Las Vegas could result in a $500 or more charged to a flier’s credit card. While consumer groups hated the bill, it had one fairly important backer — Airlines for America, an industry trade group that represents 11 U.S. airliners including passenger giants United, American Airlines, Delta, Southwest, USAirways and freight carriers FedEx and UPS. Its members collectively contributed about $8.8 million to federal political committees in 2014.

Airlines for America is also the group that employs Shelley Rubino as its “Vice President, Global Government Affairs” (titles for lobbyists get fancier all the time). Rubino and Shuster, according to Politico’s account, started a romantic relationship in the summer of 2014. The same summer he moved the Transparent Airfares Act. Neither the public nor consumer groups nor close observers of the travel industry like Andrew Bender had any idea of the close relationship between the lawmaker and the lobbyist; which, when one thinks about it, is par for the course in the world of K Street, which operates far more in shadows than sunlight.

How lobbyists impact policy — their effectiveness — is a huge unknown, even to informed insiders. For example, a few reporters who closely cover health care issues were taken by surprise by the announcement of the deal to change the caps on Medicare payments to doctors, hammered out in secret between House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. But their lobbyist sources, by contrast, were all well-informed about its particulars and how it was arrived at on the day it was announced.

Even how much interests spend on lobbying is murky. Our friends at MapLight.org, a group that studies the intersection of money and politics with legislative activity, released a chart showing the organizations that disclosed spending the most on lobbying in the first three months of 2015. Of the 10 biggest spenders, just three — Google, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America and the American Hospital Association — calculate their spending using the definition of lobbying set out under the Lobbying Disclosure Act. The other seven, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Medical Association, General Electric and American Electric Power, use a definition of lobbying from the Internal Revenue Code, section 162(e) if you’re keeping score at home.

The tax code doesn’t allow corporate deductions for their political activities, which include things like grassroots lobbying, lobbying state governments, contributing (where legal) to state and local political parties and candidates, and even paying dues to lobbying organizations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. So when a company like General Electric reports its lobbying spending, it’s including things like its campaign contributions (the company disclosed giving more than $890,000 to political committees in 2014) and the portion of its dues spent on politics by organizations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (which of course reports that money in its own total lobbying spending).

Even worse, what they’re really spending their money on is a matter of guesswork. In its most recent disclosure, General Electric lists 84 specific issues they lobbied on — and one monetary total. There’s no way to tell whether the company put more effort and time into the tax on medical devices, funding for the Overseas Private Investment Corporation or modifications to the B-1 bomber.

Even if we did have more granular information on what lobbyists do, we still wouldn’t know what level of access lobbyists get to lawmakers and their staffs. So while the Shuster-Rubino story tells us much about Shuster, there’s a much wider world of information on lobbying that needs to be disclosed.


Which federal agencies haven’t released public indexes of their data?

(Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

It’s been about a month and a half since the Office of Management and Budget responded to a Sunlight Foundation FOIA request by releasing agency Enterprise Data Inventories (EDIs). While most agencies were able to quickly provide their EDIs for release — with some redactions as appropriate under FOIA — several appear to be struggling with the release requirement.

As of today, we are still waiting on six agencies to publicly release their EDIs:

  • Department of Homeland Security;
  • Department of Justice;
  • Department of State;
  • NASA;
  • and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, several of these agencies — Homeland Security, Justice and State in particular — are notoriously tight-lipped with their information. Unfortunately, these agencies also hold information that is not only interesting, but vital for public oversight and understanding of our government. It’s also worth noting that a similar agency, the Department of Defense, released its EDI, but it contained no redactions or “non-public” datasets — a strong indication that it’s only indexing data it wants to index.

Others, such as NASA, hold a lot of data and may have reasonable excuses for delay. That said, plenty of agencies that hold vast stores of data (the Department of the Interior, for instance, has about 70,000 datasets in its index) quickly released their EDIs with little problem and appear to have deftly met the new guidance on nonpublic datasets so far.

Project Open Data has always been pitched and understood as an iterative process, underscored by OMB’s recent embrace of continued openness of EDIs. We hope that these lagging agencies will release what they can as soon as possible and continue to build out their data indexes — that way the public will have the fullest knowledge of all agency data holdings — not just the information they choose to release.


From Ireland to South Africa, new reforms shine a light on political influence across the globe

(Image credit: geralt/Pixabay)

As part of Sunlight’s Money, Politics and Transparency project, we have been working to raise awareness about the influence of money on governance across the globe. In the process, we have recently discovered some resilient (and successful!) initiatives to help shine a light on the anonymous cash that’s pouring into politics.

Money and its potential for corrupting influence is often viewed as being at the core of political power structures. Disparities in funds can aid candidates in becoming elected officials or even institutionalize majority political parties such that they are synonymous with the government. Given how entrenched monied power structures can be — and the obvious advantage they pose for those who benefit from them — efforts to weaken these disparities can be be long and arduous. However, one of the first steps in diminishing the power money can have in equalizing the interests of all is transparency; when people understand how money is influencing the political system, it loses some of its power.

Lobbying has long been an opaque activity in the political sphere. In fact, fewer than 25 countries worldwide have any legal framework to regulate lobbying. In the last month, another country has joined the ranks to bring transparency to this often shadowy process of policymaking: Ireland. The nation’s Lobbying Regulation Act of 2015 will go into effect next month, and the launch of a mandatory lobbying registry will help inform the public on who is influencing legislators. With access to lobbying data, journalists and civil society can begin to mine through this information to connect the dots and even create tools to engage citizens, like the tool TI Slovenia just launched after having passed lobbying regulations just a few years ago.

We’ve also observed strides toward better political finance disclosure that are also approaching the finish line. In light of a recent scandal in Chile, the government is proposing amendments to political financing regulations and civil society groups. The amendments could include a lowered threshold on donor disclosure, and public interest organizations, such as Fundación Ciudadano Inteligente, are gallantly pushing to ensure the timely and complete disclosure of this information. In South Africa, a country with a traditionally thin political finance framework, the advocacy group MyVoteCounts has launched a campaign to make it mandatory for parties to disclose where their money is coming from. MyVoteCounts is awaiting a court judgment that will rule on whether donor disclosure is relevant in helping inform voters and, at Sunlight, we are optimistic that the court will rule in their favor.

Democratizing information is an important step in confronting power structures and lowering the barrier to citizen participation. Although there is still much work to do, it’s inspiring to see powerful initiatives acknowledging this approach — and even getting elected officials to take notice.


Happy 9th anniversary, Sunlight!

The Sunlight team! (Bonus: Can you spot our robotic friend Wallace?)

The Sunlight Foundation is celebrating its ninth anniversary this week, and it’s particularly special for me. As the new president of Sunlight, this is the first time I’ve been able to participate in this annual milestone and celebrate as a part of this amazing team of people. Sunlight has such a legacy of success, and I’m excited to be leading the charge as we move forward. It’s been incredible to see the support and passion from all of our fellow Sunlighters like you that have made this journey possible, so thank you!

We’re building on all of Sunlight’s past success and have big plans for the coming year. Thanks to our work with municipal staff and officials, 37 cities have already adopted open data policies. We’re now preparing to expand on this effort through a multi-year, national effort to bring more open data practice and policy to mid-sized American cities. Recently, in response to our Freedom of Information Act request, the United States government began to release what is likely the largest index of government data in the world. And speaking of FOIA, we’re continuing to fight for much needed reform to improve and modernize this cornerstone of disclosure law. We’re also gearing up for the 2016 election by buffing up our tools to better empower you to follow the money and influence in what is predicted to be the most expensive U.S. election in history.

Please help us celebrate our anniversary by contributing to the Sunlight Foundation today. Your support will be instrumental in helping us bring more transparency and accountability to our government and our politics.

Thanks for nine great years. We’re looking forward to many more!


New Pew study: Public is optimistic about open government and open data

U.S. Capitol. (Photo credit: Bill Rand/Flickr)

Today, the Pew Research Center, in association with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, released a new report that shows the majority of Americans hope more transparency and data sharing by government will make officials more accountable. However, it also shows many citizens don’t believe government agencies are doing a great job of providing useful data.

The Pew survey of 3,000 U.S. adults covered all three levels of government in America — federal, state and local — and specifically looked at:

  • People’s level of awareness of government efforts to share data;
  • Whether these efforts translate into people using data to track government performance;
  • If people think government data initiatives have made, or have the potential to make, government perform better or improve accountability;
  • The more routine kinds of government-citizen online interactions, such as renewing licenses or searching for the hours of public facilities.

The survey found that only 23 percent of the public trust the federal government to do the right thing most of the time. Its findings also show that people’s views are largely shaped by their level of trust in the government: For instance, Democrats are more hopeful than Republicans. Other major findings include:

  • 56 percent of adults say government data can help journalists cover government more thoroughly, while 41 percent do not think that.
  • 53 percent support the idea that government data can make government more accountable to the public, but 45 percent disagree.
  • 49 percent believe government data can improve the quality of government services, while 49 percent do not say that.
  • 45 percent say government data can result in better decisions by government, yet 53 percent oppose that view.

The good news: People are optimistic that open data initiatives can make government more accountable. But, many surveyed by Pew are less sure open data will improve government performance. Relatedly, Americans have not quite engaged very deeply with government data to monitor performance, so it remains to be seen if changes in engagement will affect public attitudes.

That’s something we at Sunlight hope to positively affect, particularly as we make new inroads in setting new standards for how the federal government discloses its work online. And as Americans shift their attention away from Congress and more toward their own backyards, we know our newly expanded work as part of the What Works Cities initiative will better engage the public, make government more effective and improve people’s lives.

Since our founding nine years ago, we’ve witnessed the expansive growth of the open data movement. But, while the work of Sunlight and others in the open data movement has been accelerating lately, we realize many people still don’t feel government is working for them. Together, we can change that — and we’re excited to make that change a reality.


For Google fellow, Sunlight picks Nick

Black and white picture of bearded man in suit
Photo: Nick Judd

For the second year in a row, Sunlight will be hosting a Google Journalism Fellow. Nick Judd, a Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago, will join Sunlight this summer, bringing with him a bundle of experience reporting on technology, politics and the data that help us to make sense of them.

Nick is one of 11 fellows who will spend ten weeks at journalism organizations across the country as part of the Google Journalism Fellowship. You can see the full list of organizations hosting winners of the Google Fellowship here. The hosts run the gamut from media outlets to research-driven and advocacy nonprofits, all of which work to promote freedom of information in the technological age.

Nick was selected from an exceptionally talented pool of applicants because of his unique background — spanning everything from storytelling to quantitative analysis — that fits perfectly into the Sunlight mold. He will be working with our reporting team, leveraging Sunlight tools and data to shed light on the influence of money in politics, just as the 2016 “invisible primary” season kicks in to full swing. And Nick brings solid skills to that role.

After undergraduate study at New York University, Nick worked as a reporter at local newspapers in the New York City area covering breaking news, before making the jump to TechPresident, an online publication that covers the impact of changing technology on our democracy. He eventually headed up the publication’s reporting team as managing editor from 2011 to 2013 while also volunteering his time to the Deadline Club, the New York City chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, which advocates for public access to information and ethics in journalism.

Along the way, he has picked up scripting and statistical languages like Python and R, as well as how to use relational database systems.

These days, you can find Nick in the Windy City, where he’s working on a Ph.D. in sociology. He hasn’t left behind his passion for journalism, though. Nick tells us he views the two fields as complementary and says he’s excited to join Sunlight as we work to “build a view of the whole system, of a network of interconnected systems of influence, governance and politics, so folks can understand what’s happening and decide for themselves what needs to change.”


OpenGov Voices: 5 lessons from my Sunlight exchange

A smiling Oscar Montiel.
Oscar Montiel of Codeando México.

A couple weeks ago, I had the chance to spend some time working with the Sunlight Foundation in Washington, D.C. For geeks interested in making government more accountable and more effective — like yours truly — this experience is analogous to going to space camp for a 10-year-old who wants to be an astronaut. Having the opportunity to see things happen, with people who have been working on transparency and accountability for longer than you’ve known what openness means, was an amazing experience. I’ll try to sum up my experience in five items, as general as possible and adapted to a Latin American context.

1. We can’t be one sided forever

In Mexico, we have this vision of civil society as “the good guys” and government as “the bad guys.” This creates a divide between these two, and usually prevents people in government from seeing partners in people outside their ranks. The organizations and government agencies I talked to in D.C. understand that we need a two-sided approach if we want to have a government that is effective in the 21st Century.

I know this might not be representative of the way most officials or NGOs think, but, given the success that this focus has had with the initiatives I met — from the big, international projects of the Open Government Partnership or the local initiatives of the NDI in different countries, to the policy work that the Sunlight Foundation does in the U.S. — we should aim to convince and work with the elected officials that can actually help make things happen. Real changes come when both sides get involved. Find a champion inside government and figure out a way to scale. Squashing the preconceived notion of good guys versus bad guys will definitely allow us to be more effective in the way we deliver our projects.

Fortunately, in Codeando México we have found a nice group of champions in various levels of government willing to do things differently, taking ownership of projects and engaging in a real conversation with hackers and citizens in a variety contexts. If the channels aren’t exactly open in your country or community, there are different ways to engage with officials that don’t necessarily have to do with tech (see point 3 below).

2. Allow people to say what they think, but make that thought count

Lately, we’ve been seeing reforms aimed at improving the economy and fighting corruption, but there are still possible conflicts of interest in high levels of government (and what might even be an act of censorship for media that questions some of these acts). And still, most times in Mexico we limit civic engagement to voting or signing petitions via Facebook. And people are actually offended when their 50,000 signatures don’t stop a decision that is clearly sketchy.

Would it be possible to engage people in different ways, perhaps with software like Madison to co-create new laws and changes? Would it be possible to disseminate better information in more effective ways so that if people decide to only engage through voting, they do it in a more informed way?

We still haven’t completely figured out how to do this in Mexico. A first attempt to achieve this close contact with laws came with Explica la Ley (“Explain the Law”), but closing the cycle and making that platform something actionable will be the next step.

3. Build with, not for

Civic technology should be about people first, not tech. What this means is that we should engage with communities that existed there before we found a specific problem. Consider platforms that aren’t necessarily tech-oriented or low-tech solutions before building shiny new software. If, in Mexico, we want to build a tool to defend the human right to access water throughout the country, we can’t build something for the people defending that. We must work with them. The organisations and communities defending that right probably know everyone in government who can actually decide on that subject, and technology is probably only a small part of it. Get to know the people who can help you achieve your goals, help them achieve theirs. Do it together, even if you don’t succeed, at least you will have new allies for next time.

This works on every level. Whether it is our hacker communities working on specific local issues or building new apps that work on a national level, we’ll have to get close to the communities first, then code later.

4. Find out who your community really is

If we want to build a community that includes as many people as possible, that’s fine. By partnering with community groups who want tech-based solutions, the Code for D.C. Brigade has been doing that really well. However, most of the work we do can be very specific to a niche audience; I can’t think of my family discussing the importance of FOI laws in Mexico over dinner. But this is ok, since they’re not our target community on that subject. If we find our niche includes only NGOs or government officials, that’s also fine. That’s actually one of the biggest strengths of the Sunlight Foundation, working along with governments and questioning them, but also working with other organizations who will eventually make things actionable with a bigger crowd.

So, we should try to make up our mind and work with that niche. The effectiveness of an organization can depend on it. In Codeando México, we are still figuring this out, but the need to do it is clear — otherwise our efforts might lose strength by trying to cover too many fields.

5. Be as sustainable as possible

Most of our organizations are nonprofit. That is fantastic, and it provides access to many great funds and grants. But grants don’t last forever. If you can, find a way to become self-sustained. In Latin America, part of being “the good guys” prevents us from monetizing some of the great pieces of software we create. The possibility of having money shouldn’t stop us from doing things. Once we figure this out, we’ll be one step closer to being sustainable. It’s not easy, but it’s healthy. The sooner we do it, the better.

Those are, in a nutshell the lessons I learned while in D.C. I know the context may change, but they may help us get a handle on how to address the questions we are asking in Latin American countries. Any questions? Comments? You can contact me via twitter or send me an email.

Interested in writing a guest blog for Sunlight? Email us at guestblog@sunlightfoundation.com