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article imageCitizen Media Leaders: Opening Closed Governments

By David Silverberg     Oct 13, 2008 in Internet
In a four-part series, Digital Journal is profiling innovative journalists, editors and institutions that are redrawing the map of citizen media. Find out how these bold men and women are impacting their corner of the media landscape.
Digital Journal — Sen. Barack Obama recently sponsored a bill to amend the Revenue Code of 1986. He also supports a bill focusing on increasing surveillance of food-borne illnesses. He voted nay to amend the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, and voted aye to a bill hoping to repair American railroads. Obama has voted with his party 96 per cent of the time, and he least often votes with Sen. Jim DeMint (R, SC).
All this data about Obama, and any other Senator, can be found on OpenCongress.org, a project quarterbacked by the Sunlight Foundation based in Washington. Consider Sunlight a political journalist’s best friend – it tracks fundraising events for politicians, displays the status of bills, follows voting records of all lawmakers, lists lobbying disclosure records, posts schedules of participating legislators and investigates how earmarks are being used. If that weren’t enough, the Sunlight Foundation also awards grants to Web 2.0 organizations trying to make information about Congress and the federal government more accessible to Americans.
OpenCongress.org is just one of many projects under the Sunlight Umbrella. On PublicMarkup.org, you can check out bills in their entirety, such as the recent whopper Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008. Check out Fortune535 if you want to find lawmakers’ net worth (McCain was worth $36 million, Sen. Kennedy was at $102 million). And the latest website, FARAdb, gives you the ability to see how much lobbyists contribute to legislators. For example, it might be interesting to see how former White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart gave $2,100 to Sen. Hillary Clinton on Sept. 27, 2006. This database can hone in on the exact date, lobbyist group, donor and legislator receiving the money.
Why is the Sunlight Foundation pouring its efforts into government transparency? ”More people are going online not just to shop and book airplane tickets,” says Gabriela Schneider, communications director at the Sunlight Foundation. “They want to share ideas on how they want democracy to work. And we have collaborative projects to engage people on opening up access to government.”
Aggregating all that mountainous information on legislators requires separate websites set up by Sunlight staff. One site might look at earmarks, and another might list daily schedules of Congressmen. It’s all about giving control back to the American people, whether they are merely viewers or active citizen journalists. “We want to empower citizens to know as much about their government in order to better engaged in the political process,” Schneider notes.
When it comes to citizen media, Schneider points to Congresspedia as a project ideal for adventurous political writers. The site allows contributors to edit information on Congress representatives or candidates to Congress, sharing information in a true Wikipedia style. One of its more successful initiatives was its super delegate project, offering details about those mysterious delegates made popular during the primaries. Anyone who had intimate knowledge of the delegates were encouraged to contribute, and Schneider says the mainstream media often sourced Congresspedia for super-delegate information.
Gabriela Schneider of Sunlight Foundation
The Sunlight Foundation's Gabriela Schneider believes the public has a right to know the inner workings of the U.S. government
Courtesy Gabriela Schneider
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The Sunlight Foundation also led a research project amassing 3,000 citizen journalists to research earmarks occurring in their community. “It’s fascinating to watch a citizen journalist find that needle in the haystack to make government more responsible,” Schneider says.
But don’t think Congress is stiff-arming Sunlight. Schneider says many members of Congress work with Sunlight in order to release proper documents and financial info to aid in the mission of transparency. The Foundation is digitizing data that usually resides in file folders in Washington, allowing everyday citizens to peek under the hood of the Capitol Building to see all the deals that go down hourly.
The Sunlight Foundation kept busy during the financial bailout chaos. Its Party Time project discovered that more than 250 parties were thrown for members of the U.S. House Financial Services Committee this year, hosted by players in the finance and real estate industries. Nancy Watzman, director of the Party Time project, said in a release: “The very lawmakers in Congress who are making the decisions about the most massive proposed bailout of industry in history are those who have been wined, dined, and sushi-ed by lobbyists the financial sector.”
Less well-known Web initiatives trying to open up government information can get some help from Sunlight’s “transparency” grants, Schneider tells DigitalJournal.com. Every year, the Foundation awards grants ranging from $1,000 to $800,000. In 2008, the Foundation awarded $5,000 to Knowledge as Power, a website dedicated to creating a legislator email management system. Around $90,000 went to MAPlight.org, a group linking connections between campaign donation and legislative votes.
Americans who like their government transparent would be smart to enjoy what the Sunlight Foundation has created: grassroots websites dedicated to opening doors that have remained shut too long. Watchdogs like Sunlight can also be the ideal bookmark for citizen journalists hunting for that under-reported political story.
Tomorrow, learn how a journalism school for adults is offering the proper tools and resources to find under-reported stories.

Citizen Media Leader Series

This is the second part in a four-part series on pioneers in citizen journalism. See below for the other artists in the series:
The Journalist with a Business Edge
: Dan Gillmor is a citizen journalist's best friend, penning books on grassroots media and offering advice on blending user-generated content and entrepreneurship.
The Mentoring Journalism School: How does the Institute of Citizen Journalist help create a healthier media? Learn about the resources and tools offered to engaged citizens in order to uncover under-reported stories
More about Sunlight foundation, Citizen journalist, Opencongress org
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