I first learned about MAPLight.org at the recent NetSquared Conference. As I wrote last week, the conference attendees chose MAPLight as the winner of the first prize NetSquared Innovation Award. In a crowd of extremely well-deserving projects, MAPLight stood out as an organization applying the best of Web 2.0 technology and standards to create a vital tool for transparency in democracy.
MAPLight.org brings together campaign contributions and how legislators vote, providing an unprecedented window into the connections between money and politics. We currently cover the California Legislature and U.S. Congress.
Maplight has been receiving a fair amount of attention lately and the $25k prize will help them take their project to the next level, providing the funds for them to create customized widgets for bloggers and nonprofit organizations to share up to date information on their websites automatically. MAPLight is also working to expand their service to other states, with New York next on the list.
I chatted with Sean Tanner, Maplight’s Research Manager via email to get a little more insight into Maplight’s mission and future particularly as America turns its attention to the next Presidential election. As Research Manager, Sean coordinates the MAPLight.org database and research internship program. He is also the chair of the Young Advocates, a group of young professionals who support the work of Human Rights Watch.
Micki Krimmel: Can you tell me a little bit about the mission of MAPLight and its origins?
Sean Tanner: MAPLight.org was born of the need for citizens to get clear, accurate information on the connections between campaign contributions and legislative votes. These data are already public information, but it used to take hours to dig through even a small portion of them. MAPLight.org exists to collect, aggregate, and present the data in a way that illuminates the connection between money and politics.
MK: How do you hope people use MAPLight?
ST: We hope that people will use MAPLight.org to learn more about the particular issues, bills, and legislators they care about.--whether it’s a reporter researching a bill, a blogger getting crucial information about their legislator, or an advocacy group learning how campaign donations affect their issue.
MK: Where do you get the information? Can you briefly explain your research process?
ST: Three main data sets come together on MAPLight.org: campaign contributions, legislative information (votes, bills, amendments, etc), and special interest support of and opposition to legislation. For our U.S. Congress website, the campaign contributions come to us from the Center for Responsive Politics and the legislative information from the Library of Congress website, through a service called Govtrack.us.
For our California State website, the campaign contributions come from the National Institute on Money in State Politics and the legislative information is from the California Legislative Analyst’s website. In both cases, the special interest support and opposition statements are gathered by our researchers from public statements made by corporations, trade associations, unions, professional associations, and advocacy groups. We start by looking through Congressional hearing testimony, then sift through news databases, legislative action websites, and a number of other public sources.
MK: Do you have plans to make this more accessible for the average voter? Are you partnering with press organizations to make sure this information is distributed widely?
ST: MAPLight.org exists to make our data accessible to everyone. Through features like our 6-minute “Video Tour,” featured on our home page, we continually seek to make MAPLight.org easy to learn and use. We also actively reach out to members of the press and issue-oriented nonprofit groups who can make use of our data.
MK: How can people keep track of issues that are important to them?
ST: Join a citizens’ group working on that issue to track current issues, and use MAPLight.org gather specifics on money and votes about particular bills.
MK: Does MAPLight provide a way to highlight upcoming bills and contributions and ways for people to contact their representative? How can you turn this into a tool for action/change?
ST: We currently provide contact information for both U.S. Congress and the California State Legislature. We highlight specific bills and particular issues, such as nutrition or net neutrality, but we do not take positions on legislation. We are nonprofit and nonpartisan.
MK: What role do you hope MAPLight will play in the 2008 presidential elections? Do you have special plans for this?
ST: We seek to illuminate the connection between money and politics in a way that makes it a bigger part of public debate during the election season. People interested in our work can keep abreast of these and other developments by signing up for our periodic updates here: http://maplight.org/participate/signup.
Many thanks to Sean for taking the time to chat with us! If you want to learn more about MAPLight and how you can get involved, check out the project summary on the NetSquared website. MAPLight is seeking both technical and management expertise. As with any nonprofit startup, donations and feedback are also encouraged.