Sunlight Foundation – Web2.0 meets government

What would it be like if public information: bills and supporters, government spending, campaign donations, were online and mashup-able like Amazon books and Google maps, and collaborative like wikipedia? I had a chance to go to an event put on by the Sunlight Foundation, which is investing in this vision, and admire some excellent tools, such as Maplight, a new, useful and elegant database of political contributions in California, and project VoteSmart,which tracks US and state politicians voting records.
Getting the tools crew together was fun; the next step is to mix it up with users. One of the participants in the “speed geeking” cohort I was in — this is like speed dating but with tech demos — was a journalist, and it was a thrill seeing him get excited about all of the lovely sources. As a sometime activist, I also saw the tools with the eyes of a potential user. There needs to be an event with the Sunlight toolset, and the crew of journalists, bloggers, public interest folk, and staffers who would actually use it, to get the word out, and get feedback.
It is excellent that Sunlight is funding this stuff — it is the old-fashioned, geeky progressive vision that government is better with oversight and transparency. The value is combining the dispassionate data with the energy of folks trying to expose corruption and get good things done.
So, a new generation of tools is getting funded at the same time that the traditional users of the tools — journalists — are facing an economically dubious future. The unholy alliance of advertising and news is breaking apart — the money is siphoning to Google and to Craigs List. There is more than enough great data to keep investigative journalists quite busy, but what is going to pay their rent?

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