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Political Watchdogging

I’m in Cambridge for my monthly visit to the Berkman Center. Today features a Sunlight Foundation mini-conference where people who are interested in political transparency are comparing notes. (See also Ethan Zuckerman’s great notes; and there’s a Technorati BerkmanSunlight taglist.)

Berkman director John Palfrey observes that amid cynicism about American democracy, this group is working — by sharing more information — to restore some faith. But he asks, how does adding information do this? And he asks about the tension between what individuals (and small teams) can do and collective action; one of the puzzles is how to work individuals but also use the network to best effect, creating greater leverage toward whatever our goals may be.

The political leanings in this room are distinctly from the left, but Sunlight (which is funding one of our projects) is a nonpartisan organization working with people on both sides of the aisle. Would have been great to have some conservatives here…

People in the room are working on an amazing variety of projects around the U.S., including (I’m updating as they speak):

  • Connecticut Local Politics, which spurred organized party interest in a local candidate the officials hadn’t heard of. The site has bipartisan authorship. Chris Bigelow, who started the site, says he’s trying to spur conversations across the political divides. How to deal with flame wars? Tried many experiments, including registration and moderation. Clear rules: Don’t insult other posters. There are clear rules.
  • Bluegrass Report from Kentucky, where Mark Nicholas, a partisan Democrat, is trying to balance activism and news. The site is widely read, and probes corruption issues the media hasn’t, he says, been dealing with. He’s pursued complaints against people including the chief justice and governor.
  • Orange Politics, a multi-author North Carolina site run by Ruby Sinreich, covering Orange County (which includes Chapel Hill). The site is avowed progressive, and has become a power in the region where people seem to have been more engaged with national than local politics. Local papers don’t do a good enough job covering local issues, she says, because they lack context. “These are our neighbors we’re talking about,” she says. There have been issues with comments; authentication is required, and the community pesters people who don’t use real names to ‘fess up. The site covers local hearings, sometimes live-blogging, though it’s primarily an opinion blog.
  • Vermont Daily Briefing, a blog by Philip Baruth. He’s worked for Vermont Public Radio, writing satires, and writes fiction. He left VPR to become a soloist in a “truncated” media landscape where the daily papers, TV and radio all do short pieces on politics and politicians. He goes against the “shorter is better” journalistic view, offering character-driven commentary and long interviews.
  • Arizona Congress Watch, Stacy Holmstedt’s effort to cover people who aren’t getting covered in an serious way. She aggregates information (using standard search tools) about the members of Congress, looking to a variety of sources. Often, she says, traditional media people pick up items from her — using her site as a tip sheet and making sure that they haven’t missed anything important. “There is an appetite out there for politics,” she says.
  • ProgressNowAction, a Colorado site created by Bobby Clark. The idea was to create a place where Colorado progressives could connect and have influence. The site now has 300,000 on its email list, of whom 50,000 are active, he says. The site is a community blog where anyone can register and blog, and create groups to collaborate. There’s a calendar with RSVP capability. One of the first groups featured military veterans. One, a disabled Vietnam vet, emerged as a leader and rebutted, in a video, an advertisement for an incumbent candidate with a “terrible record” on veterans’ issues. The video, posted on YouTube and sent to media and people in the district, generated news stories in the district and offers to put the ad on cable TV in the district. Sustainability is an issue for this and other sites. One way to get people involved more is a clipping service (with a $10 a month donation requested, and they’re looking for sponsors); another is providing tools via the network to push collective action.
  • Latinos for Texas, Mario Champion’s effort to create interactive community. The mission is to get people into communities and be active. There are calendars and tags, and help for people to become organizers on their own. The organization has created essentially self-organized phonebanks. “Structure helps people organize themselves.”
  • NotOneDamnDime, a site by Jesse Gordon trying to organize a “delayed spending” on Inauguration Day 2005. Lots of press, wide participation (and lots of pushback). Site worked in part because participation was easy (no signup; asking people to “do nothing”; viral spread; widespread belief that antiwar movement was being ignored by traditional media).
  • Room Eight, covering New York politics. Gur Tsabar says the site hasn’t gotten the wider audience involved, to show the personal politics of blogging — a major concern. “It’s an entity that speaks to itself,” he says, not speaking well enough to people not already involved in politics. Advice from Gordon: It takes person-to-person, and needs incentive for people to recruit others.
  • MapLight, about money and politics in the California legislature. Dan Newman says the site collects two data sets — money given to legislators plus voting records — that hadn’t been put together before. Launched it with California data and will soon launch site for U.S. Congress. Shows example of bottled-water bill, saying bottled water should meet same safety standards as community-provided drinking water. The site shows support by groups for and against the bill, how much they gave on average to legislators who voted for and against, plus timelines and much more. Accountability is the goal.

Bill Allison, Sunlight’s senior researcher, talks about connections between actions inside a district and a member’s voting. It’s not just the broad, horizontal issues of national importance where corruption takes root. “Bridges to nowhere” can have everything to do with local people’s influence on politicians they send to Washington. He called local officials in one case (Alaska) and discovered financial links between members and industrial interests, as well as a township commissioner and owners of surrounding land — “a vertically integrated structure” of interests. Another case involving former House Speaker Dennis Hastert found connections between the politician and a freeway interchange, leading to a big profit for Hastert in a land deal. Wherever local issues bump into federal responsibilities, it’s worth checking what the local member of Congress is doing — responding in the community interest or someone else’s interest.

More interesting projects, some of which have already been featured here but all of which are fascinating:

Diversity of another sort comes to the table. This group is heavily male and white. We hear from two Connecticut high-school students who explain how irrelevant politics has become to their generation, and to people from minority communities. This remains, and will be for some time, a key issue.

7 Comments on “Political Watchdogging”

  1. #1 …My heart’s in Accra » Local online organizing at the Sunlight Foundation meeting
    on Jan 15th, 2007 at 9:01 am

    [...] Dan Gillmor has an excellent summary of this session on his blog. And here are other posts on Technorati about the conference, tagged berkmansunlight. [...]

  2. #2 Berkman Sunlight: Political Information in an Internet Era at Jake Shapiro blogs sometimes.
    on Jan 15th, 2007 at 8:46 pm

    [...] So for a full rundown check out Ethan’s post on the panels and the demos and Dan and David pile on. John Palfrey weighs in with some reflections on the goals of the day. [...]

  3. #3 Steven G. Erickson
    on Jan 16th, 2007 at 11:33 am

    Judicial Immunity needs to be abolished or there is no separation of powers, there is no checks and balances. For more on what Connecticut corruption is doing to infect our great nation, do a word search on Steven G. Erickson

  4. #4 Amazing Tools revealed at Harvard Event at Front Porch
    on Jan 17th, 2007 at 9:48 am

    [...] David Weinberger, Ethan Zuckerman, David Gillmor, Campaigns Wikia… and others, I’m sure.  Try Technorati. So, on the one hand we had bloggers generating great content about fairly narrow topics. On the other were people developing amazing tools for drilling into all sort of data and stories about what’s really going on behind the scenes in Congress and the statehouses. Most of the folks in both these camps shared one challenge… reaching a wide-enough audience. [...]

  5. #5 Michael Wood-Lewis
    on Jan 17th, 2007 at 11:04 am

    Dan… good to meet you and hear of your recent work. Your insights about Front Porch Forum are appreciated. I’m ruminating on our progress and challenges at http://frontporchforum.com/blog. See you in Vermont some time? -Michael

  6. #6 This is the post conference write-up I did for the… | Get Involved
    on Mar 5th, 2007 at 10:59 am

    [...] coverage see what other participants had to say, Ethan Zuckerman, Jake Shapiro, John Palfrey, Dan Gillmor, David Weinberger and [...]

  7. #7 ilyagram » Blog Archive » All Day with (Sunny) Data 充滿陽光的一整天
    on Apr 2nd, 2007 at 12:57 am

    [...] and Dan Gilmor had the stories (Local online organizing at the Sunlight Foundation meeting, & Political Watchdogging of Sunlight Foundation and Berkman Center’s January conference, when I am busying helping Dr. [...]