Welcoming the Posse

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.

Design changes

We rolled out some design changes this afternoon, in preparation for our soft launch tomorrow. Folks who got comfortable with the hemmed-in headers and logo might find the blue sky a bit jarring, but we think you’ll come to like it. If you feel the urge, let us know what you think about it all – font and layout tweaks, as well – in the comments.

References and Wikipedia

A quick but important note about References on Littlesis.

From now on we’re encouraging Littlesis analysts to only use original sources when contributing data. Sites like Wikipedia that aggregate information from elsewhere without requiring documentation, though abundant with largely accurate information, are less useful to Littlesis users looking to verify information.

Wikipedia pages often contain inadequate documentation of the info they contain. When a reference is provided at the bottom, it’s often not directly linked to the relevant text above. Moreover, Wikipedia pages often change, and information that you source one day might be gone the next. And as we all know, Wikipedia is still considered an illegitimate source of information in many circles.

I personally love Wikipedia and use it for learning all the time. I often feel it’s the most useful public website in existence. And Littlesis probably wouldn’t be possible without the crowdsourcing success story of Wikipedia paving the way. But for documenting my work on Littlesis, it’s more helpful to others if I enter sources that will allow other users to quickly confirm my info if they so desire.

Of course, Wikipedia is often the best starting point to look for original sources. And we still encourage you to add Wikipedia pages as references to an entity’s profile directly, just not as the only source for a relationship or other important piece of info. The ‘References’ section on any profile contains a details link at the top that allows you (if you are logged in) to add new references independently of the entity and relationship editing process. For example:


Soon you’ll see an adviso like “original sources only — not Wikipedia!” below the ‘Source URL’ field in editing forms. Understand we’re not hating on everyone’s favorite ‘pedia, just trying to keep it real.

Excited About 2009

Last winter Kevin and I were just beginning to look for funding to grow Little Sister — as the project was then named — from a raggedy prototype to a sophisticated, fast, and reliable public resource. I was living at my parents’ house and Kevin was getting by writing about the (amazingly) still-obscure subprime housing meltdown and its relation to Wall Street.

Much has happened since then. The Sunlight Foundation recognized the potential — and the urgency — of our project and moved quickly to support six months of intensive web development. We’re now putting the finishing touches on a beta that we’re proud of and excited to unveil to the watchdogging world.

These finishing touches include:

  • a robust caching system to improve site performance
  • more names, relationships, photos, logos, and links
  • better instructions for adding content
  • design and UI improvements

Once these are complete, which should happen within the next week or so, the beta launch is official. Expect a post about it from us and Sunlight soon.

Quick and Dirty

For the past two months we’ve been rebuilding this site with more data, better data, a more flexible architecture, version tracking, and other goodies. Eddie Tejeda has joined the team and progress is swift.

Though in some ways unsurprising, recent events on Wall Street and in Washington are stunning and deeply troubling. It’s made us work harder. We hope to get the new (beta) site up soon. Expect more frequent updates as the launch approaches.

Project Status

Littlesis is currently in active development. For the time being, please note that user contributions and edits will not last longer than a day or so, and some features may not work all the time. If all goes well, we hope to have the beta site ready for public use by November 2008.

We have a lot of work ahead of us, and our development team needs your help. If you are a data scraper or web developer and would like to tackle a fun and interesting small project, drop us a line. We’d love to hear from you.