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On this Thanksgiving Morning I have much to be thankful for. This community of support has been tremendous and really, I love you all.

We still have a little way to go until we’re out of the dark but I’m certain we can achieve the goal.


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This Thanksgiving, let a little Sunlight in

This is a graphic for #GivingTuesday
We’d love your support this #GivingTuesday.

Thanksgiving is tomorrow, which, for many of us, means spending time with family, watching football and consuming enough turkey to induce a coma. However you will be spending the holiday tomorrow: Happy Thanksgiving, from our Sunlight family to yours.

Thanksgiving also marks the beginning of the holiday season — and the beginning of the holiday shopping season, with Black Friday, Cyber Monday and #GivingTuesday.

If you plan on taking advantage of Cyber Monday savings, shop on AmazonSmile and give back to the Sunlight Foundation at the same time! AmazonSmile has all of the same items and prices of Amazon, but will also donate a portion of the price of eligible purchases to Sunlight. Now you can support open government while making all of your holiday purchases!

Of course, not everyone uses Amazon or chooses to venture out to crowded stores for Black Friday deals. But, you can still support our work this holiday. The Tuesday after Thanksgiving, millions will take part in #GivingTuesday — joining the cause for the greater good and making donations to organizations that they support. This #GivingTuesday, consider giving a little sunlight by donating to the Sunlight Foundation.

Once again, we wish you a Happy Thanksgiving and a joyful holiday season.


European Union announces new rules aimed to enhance lobbying disclosure

Photo of President Jean-Claude Juncker
President Jean-Claude Juncker.

Last week, the European Commission revealed new rules that will attempt to make EU lobbying more transparent. Beginning December 1, top-level EU officials will be required to publicly declare their meetings with lobbyists. The announcement comes in the wake of scandal for the EU’s new President, Jean-Claude Juncker. Just days after taking office on November 1, documents were leaked alleging secret tax deals in Luxembourg with big corporations that occurred during Juncker’s term as prime minister of the small Western European country.

Though the details of Luxembourg’s tax scandal call into question the trustworthiness of the new EU leadership, any policy that sheds light on the lobby industry could represent a positive step forward in Europe, where there are currently estimated to be over 30,000 lobbyists — but exact numbers, contacts and identities remain mired in secrecy. The EU created its first voluntary lobbying registry in 2011, but without a mandatory requirement to register, the details in the database are sparse. So far, only about 6,500 entities have disclosed any information on their lobbying activities.

Earlier this year, Jean-Claude Juncker made a public commitment to increasing transparency in the influence of lobbying in Brussels, including the implementation of a mandatory register. The most recently introduced rules would require Commissioners, their Cabinets, and the Directors-General of the Commission services to publish the dates, locations and names of organisations and individuals met and the topics discussed.

Information about lobby contacts and meeting details can play a crucial role in increasing transparency around the influence industry, through empowering watchdogs and citizens to connect the dots as legislation is being debated, tweaked and passed. And although the best way to ensure comprehensive and effective oversight is to require mandatory disclosure from both public officials and lobbyist groups, we believe that requiring top-level officials to disclose their contacts and meetings might have some positive effects in itself. First, it demonstrates public institutions leading by example, which could be a crucial step in creating a culture of transparency and restoring trust in public institutions. Second, the disclosure of contacts and meetings could help shine a light on unregistered lobbyists and put significant pressure on top-level EU officials to meet with registered groups only. Third, once we have a more complete picture of lobbyists via a mandatory register, the availability of the two different data sources will significantly increase public scrutiny and oversight through potential comparison.

However, watchdogs are concerned that the most recent announcement is simply a surface-level PR-exercise designed to alleviate public fears about secret influence permeating the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between Europe and the U.S. The press release is still vague on the exact parameters, but concerns have arised over the scope of the rule which is limited to the Commissioner, the Cabinet and Director General and therefore likely doesn’t apply to those most heavily lobbied on TTIP (and most other issues). There are other red flags indicating that the rules may just be a distraction from the real secrecy in TTIP as there will be no public release of the draft negotiations, a necessary step in helping stakeholders determine whether the negotiations are being carried out in the public interest.

We can only hope that the most recently introduced rules for disclosure are part of a holistic effort by the new administration and only a first step to make EU lobbying more accountable. Going forward, proper implementation will play a crucial role: the data should be released in a timely and accessible fashion and accompanied by proper oversight. For more details on how Sunlight’s vision for increasing transparency around lobbying, please see our Lobbying Disclosure Guidelines.


New Mexico water commission votes to divert Gila River despite open meetings complaints

The Gila River. Photo by Avelino Maestas

A New Mexico water commission yesterday decided to go forward with a plan to divert thousands of acre-feet of water from the Gila River, despite complaints by activists that it violated open meetings laws.

A former staff director of the commission, Norman Guame, brought a lawsuit charging the violations and in late October New Mexico District Judge Raymond Ortiz issued a temporary restraining order preventing the Interstate Stream Commission (ISC), from moving forward with the plans, as we reported here. However, Ortiz recused himself from the case in mid-November for reasons that have not been made public.

The new judge assigned to the case, Francis J. Matthew, on Nov. 21 dissolved the restraining order, citing in part a state court rule that requires a plaintiff to post bond when requesting a restraining order. With the state poised to lose as much as $62 million in federal funding if it does not move forward with a plan to divert the river, the judge “wondered what kind of bond Guame could provide for security,” reported Avelino Maestas, editor of the Silver City Daily Press (and a former Sunlight staff member). Guame’s attorney offered $500; the judge deemed that insufficient.

Guame agreed to drop his motion for a preliminary injunction against the ISC, so the commission may move forward with plans. However, the court will still hear the case on whether or not the open meeting laws were violated next spring.

At issue is a project to divert 14,000 acre-feet of water from the Gila River, a tributary of the Colorado River. Environmentalists have been battling ranchers who want more access to water. The state is eligible for a subsidy of $34 million to $62 million if it moves forward with a plan for a diversion–however, the funds dry up if the state fails to make its plans clear to the Feds by December 31.

Environmentalists say a diversion is unnecessary, and that New Mexicans water needs could be met through better conservation. They argue the federal funds are not sufficient to cover the full costs of the project, which Guame estimates could exceed $1 billion.

Guame argues in his lawsuit that a “Gila Subcommittee” has held its meetings in secrets. Gaume argues that this violates open meeting rules requiring that “the formation of public policy or the conduct of business by vote shall not be conducted in a closed meeting.”

Guame also charges, although not in this lawsuit, that the commission earlier withheld a spreadsheet containing data on water flows in the river, which he requested under open records laws so he could conduct an independent analysis.




Being strategic about retiring projects

White pelicans flying over the ocean at sunset taken by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Image via U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Close observers of Sunlight’s work may have noticed a number of projects listed as retired on the recently revamped tools page. As an organization, we believe in taking stock of our work on a regular basis to sunset programs that are no longer operating as intended, or that are outside the goals we’ve set for the future.

This critical self-evaluation can be a challenging process as each project is backed by passionate Sunlighters and public fans, but we know it is important to keep our work focused on the areas where we’re making the most impact and where our contribution is unique. This commitment to focus and impact is something our new President Chris Gates is keenly interested in and so we’ll be regularly and thoughtfully reviewing our work to be as effective and strategic as possible.

We’re an organization that is fortunate to be a member of a vibrant community working towards common goals, which is why all our code is open-source and licensed for reuse. For each retired project listed on the tools page, we link to the code on Github so anyone to adapt our code into their own projects. Here are a number of projects in alphabetical order that are now retired on the tools page:

180 Degrees: This project turned the cameras around on the audience to see who was attending influential events. It began with a Senate antitrust subcommittee hearing about the proposed AT&T and T-Mobile merger that was packed with Washington lobbyists and power brokers. It was an experiment to help connect the dots on the major players in the room working to influence the laws written in Washington.

Checking Influence: Checking Influence securely analyzed your online financial statements to show you the political influence of the companies you did business with. It displayed your own spending alongside corporate spending on lobbying activities and campaign contributions. When it launched in 2010, a New York Times reporter wrote about trying it on their accounts and found the “information was interesting.” Another financial blog reviewed it and said, “the Checking Influence tool would be a benefit to all of us as American consumers.”

Churnalism: Churnalism was a website and browser extension that showed you the similarities between news articles and press releases or other sources. It was driven by a cool search engine technology called “Superfastmatch” developed with the Media Standards Trust to match entered text against a large corpus of press releases.

Congrelate: Congrelate was an attempt to view, sort, filter and share information about members of Congress and their districts. It brought together disparate data sources to see how they related.

Congress for Windows Phone 7: This was an adaptation of our Congress app for the Windows Phone 7. Maximum PC once named it “App of the Week.”

Earmark Watch: Earmark Watch was an experiment in distributed research launched way back in 2007 where users could investigate and evaluate the spending provisions requested by individual members of Congress. It brought public oversight to the thousands of earmarks inserted into federal spending measures.

Elena’s Inbox: Elena’s Inbox allowed anyone to search through Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan’s emails during her Clinton Administration years. Someone tweeted the idea to Sunlight, and the final result was called a “thought-provoking project” by ReadWrite and “Very much worth the click” by Politico. ThinkProgress said, “The crew over at the Sunlight Foundation have done the country a great service,” and DailyKos wrote “God bless the Sunlight Foundation.”

Inbox Influence: This project allowed you to see the political contributions of the people and organizations that are mentioned in emails you received. It added context to emailed articles and discovered who was behind political fundraising solicitations.

Operation Transbearency: This was a silly one-off event promoting the disclosure of money in politics that riffed on Stephen Colbert’s fear of bears. We had fun. Politico wrote, “Members of the foundation will don bear suits while spreading the word about the importance of government transparency (naturally).”

Poligraft: Poligraft let you to connect the dots between money and politics in Congress. You pasted in a URL or text of a news article, blog post or press release and then Poligraft created an enhanced view of the people, organizations and relationships described within it.

Politiwidgets: Politiwidgets were embeddable information about Congress. We built 10 free widgets that displayed lawmakers’ top campaign contributors, earmarks they requested, their voting record on any current bill, the locations of their fundraisers and many others.

Read the Bill: This was a successful campaign to allow elected officials and the public the chance to read a legislation before it goes for a vote. In Jan. 2011, Congress incorporated a new rule that non-emergency bills must be available for 72 hours online before a vote.

Real Time Congress: This app was the precursor to Congress for iOS. When it launched the Washington Post said it was “everything Hill-o-philes would want and need while on the go,” and the Atlantic called it “a fantastic and helpful new iPhone App.”

Roku Apps: We made a collection of open government apps for Roku to stream audio-visual content from the White House, Congress and the Supreme Court.

Sarah’s Inbox: This was an adaption of the code from Elena’s Inbox that allowed anyone to search through Sarah Palin’s emails during her time as governor of Alaska. It was similarly well received to the earlier version with the Guardian calling us “the bright sparks at the Sunlight Foundation,” and Minnesota Public Radio wrote, “the ability to display copious amounts of information in elegant ways continues to show promise for the future of journalism. Case in point: The Sunlight Foundation’s sarahsinbox.com.

Stream Congress: Stream Congress was a customizable feed of tweets, YouTube videos and floor updates from members of Congress.

Sunlight Campaign Ad Monitor: This was a project that allowed anyone to report information on the political advertising they saw on TV, heard on the radio or viewed online.

Sunlight Health: This was the first of three National Data Apps developed with support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. It was an Android and iPhone app to help consumers make informed decisions about healthcare services and prescription drug options.

Sunlight Live: This was an interactive, real-time investigative reporting platform. Sunlight Live paired streaming video of major congressional hearings and news events with relevant transparency data and responses to the online audience. It won the 2010 Knight-Batten Grand Prize for Innovations in Journalism.

Transparency Corps: Transparency Corps was a crowd-sourcing project to have the public assist with various open government projects.

Upwardly Mobile: Upwardly Mobile compared factors of salary, living and employment data and ranked locations based on your preferences. The New York Times wrote about how Upwardly Mobile helped people decide where to live, saying it “allows for a level of analytical rigor that has been missing from this conversation.” It was the second of three National Data Apps with support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.


Barangaroo Comes Together

After nearly ten years of planning and development, Barangaroo, a 22-hectare port on the Sydney waterfront, is coming together as a rich, $6 billion, mixed-use development that will fill in missing gaps in the city’s waterfront promenade and offer a stunning, one-of-a-kind park with an embedded Aboriginal cultural center. As Peter Walker, FASLA, PWP Landscape […] […]

Help liberate your town’s info with the Open Civic Data project!

This Thanksgiving holiday, we’re asking you to join Sunlight in helping create open data about your local government. Over the last year and a half, we have been working hard to architect and implement new tools and data specifications to work with state and municipal data; ultimately, we want to make it easier for you to better know how your local-level elected officials are creating laws that will affect you in your hometown. This is all part of our new Open Civic Data project.

Imagine getting a push notification letting you know when your city council is taking up legislation to improve bike lanes in your neighborhood, and then being able to easily call or email your council member to weigh in on the ordinance. Or being able to enter your zip code on a website to find out who your representatives are — from your town to state capitol to Congress — and seeing what bills they’re voting on and how you can get in touch to have your voice be heard?

This can all soon be a reality — but we need your help to make it happen.

We’re asking all of you (yes, you!) to try Open Civic Data’s spreadsheet collection tool to bring your hometown online. It’s very easy to do, and we hope you’ll also consider recruiting three friends and/or family members to do the same when you get together for Thanksgiving. The best way to get started is to download our template, read the guide and replace the example data with real information for your city. After the sheet is all filled out, you can send us the data by uploading it through our brand new upload tool.

In the spirit of ensuring that we end up with a tool that fits the actual use of those who are interested in data collection, we’re asking that folks take a look at this tool before we’re actually finished with it, so please report any issues you have with the tool to us as soon as you find them. As a result of releasing this early in the process without extensive user testing, you may find bugs – this is normal, and not your fault. Reporting bugs as you encounter them is one of the best ways to ensure we end up with something that becomes as easy as we want it to be, so be sure to report them!

We’re also asking interested technical folks to consider trying out the Open Civic Data API, utilizing the API directly, or with our new python-opencivicdata-api bindings. Your existing Sunlight API key (if you don’t have one, now’s a great time to register!) will work against this API, so feel free to get started today! Documentation on the endpoints is available as part of our Open Civic Data documentation, and a list for folks interested in new features and development announcements should join our Open Civic Data Google group.

Our state and municipal team took the lessons learned from the development of the Open States specifications, along with existing work from Open North‘s Popolo project, and developed tools to create, curate and distribute the data in a common and flexible way. This has taken the form of scraper infrastructure, an API and a tool to upload spreadsheets of data to the Open Civic Data database.

One of our biggest focuses was to create a system where non-technical users are able to contribute to the data collection effort in an easy and effective way. In particular, we wanted to enable the collection of municipal data in a format that was easy to understand, and build tools to translate this into the full Open Civic Data format.

We sincerely appreciate your help to ensure we all have access to free and open data about our representatives from the local level on up. Together, we can create more ways to hold our government accountable.

If you need help, have feedback or otherwise want to say hi, please send mail to opencivicdata@sunlightfoundation.com. Thanks for your help and have a happy Thanksgiving!


Robert Bullard: “Equity Can’t Be Left Out”

True sustainability is a three-legged stool, said Dr. Robert Bullard, one of the fathers of environmental justice movement, at the ASLA 2014 Annual Meeting in Denver. It rests on environmental sustainability, economic sustainability, and equity.  However, equity, Bullard believes, is still too often left out. This is a problem because “a community can’t be sustainable […] […]

Dredge Design

To dredge simply means to scoop up sediment, often underwater, and move it to another location. While it’s often associated with moving contaminated soils to a location where they can be safely capped, today, dredging is also increasingly about harnessing natural processes to create new landforms and ecological systems. New “dredge landscapes,” man-made structures, offer […] […]

3D Printing Can Empower Landscape Architects

Landscape architects can bypass contractors and participate directly in the fabrication and manufacturing of all sorts of objects like benches or even pavers, if they are confident enough to delve into 3D modeling and 3D printing, said Steven Bishop, ASLA, Stoss Landscape Urbanism, and John Pacyga, ASLA, Verdant Design, at the ASLA 2014 Annual Meeting […] […]