NewsShift: Watchdog Journalism With a Long Tail
By Matthew Skomarovsky  •  Dec 22, 2009 at 18:36 EST

Every year for the past few years, Knight Foundation has conducted a News Challenge that awards about $5 million in funding to a selection of projects that

  1. Use digital open-source media
  2. To distribute news and information
  3. In a geographic community

As Kevin recently noted, this year we finally got our act together and submitted a concept called NewsShift, a collaboration with our friends David and Mushon at ShiftSpace. In an attempt to provoke an escalating war of compliments, I will point out that the ShiftSpace folks, whose work we’ve followed for years, are highly talented designers and engineers, and ShiftSpace is a real beast waiting to be unleashed.

Read more…

New Ways to Follow the Money on LittleSis
By Matthew Skomarovsky  •  Nov 23, 2009 at 11:55 EST

Faithful readers may have noticed that a good chunk of our recent research has centered on analysis of campaign contributions made by various power players:

This has been made possible by a new tool we’ve built that makes it easy to match people in LittleSis with campaign contributions compiled by OpenSecrets.org:

Ever since OpenSecrets opened its data earlier this year, we’ve been working on a useful little tool to let our analysts import campaign contribution data from OpenSecrets straight into LittleSis. This tool allows users to quickly determine which political candidates a given person has donated to since 1990, and how much has been given to each. It’s easy, for example, to see exactly how Senator Rockefeller likes to spread the wealth.

Our team has been putting it to the test for a couple months, and we’re finally ready to open it up to wider use.

Read more…

LittleSis Goes Open Source: An Offering and an Invitation
By Matthew Skomarovsky  •  Oct 19, 2009 at 12:40 EST

As you may know, LittleSis is built entirely with open-source software, out of necessity as well as out of principle. Over the years the growing OSS movement has given budget-strapped organizations an ever-expanding suite of free and powerful tools to implement ambitious technology projects, as well as the support of a generous community of developers always eager to teach and counsel.

Read more…

Democrats still fighting for public option
By Ellen Przepasniak  •  Oct 19, 2009 at 10:00 EST

Sen. Chris Dodd says he and key Democratic leaders in the Senate haven’t given up on a public option yet. (Reuters)

Health insurance CEOs are firing back against the Senate Finance Committee‘s health bill, saying it will cost them more in the long run. (WSJ)

White House aides David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel are calling out the latest round of Wall Street executive bonuses. (NYT)

Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski from Alaska has indicated she may back a “cap and trade” climate change bill. (Reuters)

Raj Rajaratnam, the hedge fund manager arrested last week in the U.S.’s largest insider trading case, may have given money to fund Tamil Tiger rebels. (Reuters)

Almost There! Only $115 to go on Bay Area Funding
By kyle  •  Oct 05, 2009 at 17:24 EST

After about six weeks of drawing interest, building new friendships, and researching our brains out, we’ve managed to collect 27 donations from organizations and individuals who are rallying behind the Bay Area Research Project.  The result?  We’re inspired, and working harder than ever to close the funding gap, and publish our final research.

Why Donating Is Important

Hitting the $800 donation goal is more than a matter of pride for us.  Achieving our goal proves that ground-up, community-oriented projects are viable means for LittleSis to sustain itself in a future where grants and traditional sources of funding are scarce.

Cool Stuff We Have Already Done

If you haven’t donated yet, take a look at what we’ve already produced from our research:

How to Donate

Visit our pitch on Spot.us, and click I’ll Donate $20. Don’t worry – you can donate as much or as little as you’d like.  Even $5 helps.

Tell Us What You Want

Is there something specific you’d like for us to research?  Email us and let us know.

Do you like our new look?
By Matthew Skomarovsky  •  Jun 23, 2009 at 05:08 EST

You may have noticed late last Friday we updated the LittleSis look. For months we’ve been asking our designer friends for help developing a site redesign plan, and we finally made our first steps towards implementing it. The changes so far aren’t exactly radical, but looking at the old design now makes us cringe a bit. Consider us relieved. If you don’t feel the same, we want to hear about it!

First off, we should recognize our main muses: Han Yu, Ali Felski (of Sunlight Foundation), and Mushon Zer-Aviv. If you don’t like the new design, blame us; if you like it, blame them. They’ve thrown some great ideas at us, many of which are still unrealized.

Read more…

LittleSis gets social with Analyst Notes
By Matthew Skomarovsky  •  Feb 10, 2009 at 14:03 EST

LittleSis is a latecomer to Twitter, and we’re still learning the ropes, but one thing is clear: microblogging makes nuanced argument difficult, but is quite effective for documenting simple facts and leads. What better model to mimic, then, for LittleSis’s much-needed analyst note system?

We’ve decided to modify Twitter’s format to make it more flexible for LittleSis analysts, thus feeding many birds with one worm:

  1. Notes let analysts keep memos — public or private — that make their own research easier and more complete. Notes are more useful when concise, but aren’t limited to Twitter’s 140 characters.
  2. Notes let analysts “alert” other analysts using Twitter’s @username format. Multiple analysts can be “alerted” within one note. A private note can only be viewed by its author and any analysts it alerts.
  3. Notes can link to any combination of entity, relationship, and list pages using a simple markup. For example, @entity:1 will create a link to Wal-Mart Stores, whereas @entity:1[biggest company in the world] will create a link to the biggest company in the world. @rel and @list work the same way.
  4. While notes are designed to the above needs, all of which LittleSis analysts have asked for, we encourage you to experiment with them and find new uses we haven’t thought of.

We hope the new note system, available as of this post, will strengthen the social layer on LittleSis, which is essential to keeping our data fresh, accurate, and relevant. Notes are still a work in progress, so let us know what you think!

PS: As you can see, we’ve also taken the opportunity to reshuffle our start page layout. Feedback about that is welcome too.

What’s next: help us prioritize!
By Matthew Skomarovsky  •  Jan 22, 2009 at 15:37 EST

During the building of the LittleSis beta, many good ideas for future projects were brainstormed by the development team and the dozens of colleagues and friends from whom we received advice and feedback. Although much of our time over the coming weeks will be devoted to fixing bugs, improving basic usability, and cleaning up existing data, we plan to keep rolling out new features and systematically expanding the current database in big ways when we can.

In the long run, there are a number of things we can do to address the abundance of great ideas for future development and our relative lack of time. 1) We’re going to greatly expand our fundraising efforts now that we have a live website to both show off and build upon, and that will translate into more programming power. 2) We plan to open-source the LittleSis codebase so that all the talented political techies out there can make it better. 3) Exposing our raw data to the public through an API will let others do interesting things with the data beyond our expertise and capacity.

Still, over the next few months we’ll have to be quite selective in choosing enhancements to make, and we want the LittleSis community to help us get our priorities straight. We want to put all our ideas in a single place where users can see what ideas are on our plate, rank them, refine them, and add to them. We don’t want to guess what new features and data matter most to you.

Here’s just a sample of what we’ve been thinking about:

Interface Enhancements

  • visual network maps similar to TheyRule
    or NNDB mapper
  • using more person/org profile pictures & summaries across the site to help users navigate long lists of unfamiliar names
  • allowing analysts to import campaign finance data, photos, etc, into profiles with a click of a button
  • better linking to related info on other great accountability and transparency sites in the Sunlight posse and elsewhere

Building our Analyst Community

  • user-to-user messaging
  • better space for commenting and discussion on profiles
  • blogging tools for analysts

New Data

  • private company boards & executives
  • state-level campaign finance data
  • foundations, their boards, and their grantees
  • employment histories of corporate executives
  • new members of congress

Miscellaneous

  • open API for accessing our raw data
  • better documentation of site features and how to use them
  • breaking news feed about people and groups with profiles in LittleSis
  • a browser plugin for exposing overlooked connections between names in the news

So how do we narrow these, and so many more, down to a few? We could spend a little time building a user-rated wish list tool ourselves (basically a Digg for new features, not articles), but perhaps setting up a wiki for this purpose would suffice? Perhaps there’s an existing open source app along these lines?

Engineers especially: please let us know if you have ideas about how we can best aggregate your ideas about LittleSis and where it’s heading.

New Administration, New Feature
By Matthew Skomarovsky  •  Jan 20, 2009 at 19:53 EST

Previously, user-created lists in LittleSis, such as Bush II Administration Officials, had limited value. They basically behaved like meta tags, but clunkier. If you added Paul Wolfowitz to the Bush II list, then the list name would show up on his profile, and someone browsing through members of that list would see Wolfowitz on it — and that’s about it.

But now, in time for the inaugural excitement, list pages have some new tabs: Interlocks, Giving, and Funding:

List pages in LittleSis now have tabs for viewing common affiliations of list members, as well as their donors and favorite candidates

Similar to the tabs that appear on profiles for organizations, they identify common affiliations of list members,  their biggest political donors, and other potentially interesting patterns.

Even though the LittleSis profiles for the new White House are still works in progress, the Obama Administration’s interlocks are already quite interesting.

Welcoming the Posse
By Kevin Connor  •  Jan 14, 2009 at 09:19 EST

A big welcome to friends of the Sunlight Foundation! Today’s Sunlight post marks LittleSis’s first real steps out into the wide world of the internet. We’re very happy that transparency’s posse is getting a first peek at the site, because we designed it for people like you: people focused on breaking through the information barriers that hurt our democracy.

From Wall Street to Washington, the need to bring transparency to powerful social networks is urgent. This has become increasingly clear over the past six months, as the economy has sunk to new depths, and leaders in business and government have formulated deeply unpopular responses to the challenges that the country faces.

By tracking the relationships of powerful Americans – everything from campaign contributions to family ties – LittleSis opens up these networks for public inspection. “Big Brother” is commonly used to describe a situation where the electronic eyes of the powers that be are vigilantly watching citizens for misbehavior. LittleSis is a website where the electronic eyes of citizens are vigilantly watching back.

The Sunlight Foundation first began supporting LittleSis.org about six months ago. At the time, the project was still a raggedy prototype. It was, and still is, a project of the Public Accountability Initiative, an emerging nonprofit founded by me, Matthew, and several other veterans of academia, activism, and the world of web 2.0. Sunlight recognized the urgency of the project and its goals and threw their support behind our project. We’re very grateful for their support.

Like all of you, and like Sunlight, LittleSis is part of a movement to bring transparency to government and open up the channels of power in this country. At a time of great crisis and enormous challenges, it’s movements like this one that will turn the page on an era of failed leadership and failed policy, and hit refresh on our democracy.