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Sunlight Foundation’s Ellen Miller at Transparent Text
Ethan Zuckerman, 21 Sep 09

Ellen Miller, the founder of the Sunlight Foundation, wants to redefine public information as online information. To have government accountability, we need “information for media and citizens alike” – and we need to find ways to make this information comprehensible through visualizations and other tools.

To date, Sunlight has been focused primarily on the US congress. They’re spreading out, slightly, looking at US executive data and some state data. She nods towards the need for transparency in the international sphere, but makes it clear that Sunlight’s focus is still close to home. Moreover, Sunlight focuses on two kinds of data: influence data (campaign finance information, information on lobbying and the investments of politicians) and spending data (government earmarks, grants and allocations.)

Sunlight both builds tools and funds other organizations (like Center for Responsive Politics or Maplight) to build tools and release data. She divides their work into five categories:

- analysis and awareness
- advocacy and community
- tools and resources
- thought leadership
- data sources

Much of Ellen’s talk focuses on the tools Sunlight and partners have built. She shows a visualization of earmarks, using IBM’s Many Eyes tools, which makes it extremely clear that Alaska (especially under Senator Ted Stevens) gets vastly more in earmarks per capita than any other state. She shows the beautiful map of defense appropriation earmarks mappen on Google Earth.

A recent project with Pew – Subsidy Scope – shows how powerful these tools can be. A map of TARP subsidies raises the question of how fair and effective the distribution of funds are. It also includes an interactive database allowing users to drill into specific funding commitments.

One of the least popular sites, but Ellen’s favorite, is Capitol Words, a daily visualization of the Congressional Record. While it’s not necessarily a surprise that the words “health” and “care” currently lead the day, a visualization that shows words frequently used by both Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner, is fascinating, showing common grounds that the left and right are both fighting to claim.

Some of the most powerful tools aren’t generic ones, but specific visualizations – a web of former Max Baucus staffers working in the health care industry, or the connection between campaign contributions made to Representative Visclosky and earmarks issued. These single-subject visualizations can be very powerful and get amplified widely on sites like BoingBoing.

Ellen fields a couple of tough questions on evaluating the impact of these visualizations. She’s very straightforward that it’s hard to measure the impacts. She notes that the most important evaluative criterion at present is “the Ellen test”, a test for whether a visualization or tool catches her attention and makes sense to her. It’s a challenge, moving forward, to ensure that these tools aren’t just cool and eye-catching but influential and game-changing.

This piece originally appeared on Ethan Zuckerman's excellent personal blog, My Heart's in Accra

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Citizens are now faced with new types of challenges to participating in the governance of their communities. These challenges make problem identification, let alone change increasingly out of reach of most people. The very way people could traditionally influence the creation of the world around them is being pulled from their grasp by the combination of increasing levels of illiteracy (in terms of general understanding of civic responsibilities, roles, and powers); more complex governmental systems at all levels; and, stakeholder engagement processes which are becoming inherently elitist (requiring extensive and diverse expertise, finances, and influence out of reach for most people).
As Marshall McLuhan said “the medium is the message”; so we need to ask our selves if information is consistently presented in ways that the audience can not understand (in this case “the government” being the author and citizens being the audience) what is the actual message being sent by the medium?
The attention to information design in the examples listed above are an excellent step in empowering people to regain the reigns of control; it's not that we need more information, but ways of understanding what information is already available.

Posted by: Robert Voigt on 13 Oct 09

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