Digital Directions 11: Josh Hatch of Sunlight Foundation

Josh Hatch, until recently an interactive director at and now with the Sunlight Foundation, talked about how the organisation loves data. The transparency organisation uses data to show context and relationships. He highlighted how much money Google gave to candidates. Sunlight’s Influence Explorer showed that contributions from the organisation’s employees, their family members, and its political action committee went overwhelmingly to Barack Obama.

Sunlight Foundation Influence Explorer Google

The Influence Explorer is also part of another tool that Sunlight has, Poligraft. It is an astoundingly interesting tool in terms of surfacing information about political contributions in the US. You can enter the URL of any political story or just the text, and Poligraft will analyse the story and show you the donors for every member of Congress mentioned in the story. They will highlight details about the donors, donations from organisations and US government agencies. It’s an amazingly powerful application, and I think that it points the way to easily add context to stories. It does rely on the gigabytes of data that the US government publishes, but it’s a great argument for government data publishing and a demonstration for how to use that data. Poligraft is powerful and it scales well.

Josh showed a huge range of data visualisations, and he’ll post the presentation online. I’ll link to it once he’s done.

Al Jazeera Unplugged: Twitter and the US State Department

This is a live blog. It may contain grammatical errors, but I tried to be as true to the essence of the comments as possible.

William May, US State Department and the office of innovative engagement, talked about public diplomacy as government to people or people to people diplomacy. The end game of that is mutual understanding. What we have now is very different than what we had 10 years ago. Ten years ago, we had 40,000 people that we moved across borders, and we had broadcasting. We have two bookends, the exchange programmes and on the other end, broadcasting. In the middle, we have all this new stuff like Twitter and QQ. Quoting another person at the State Department (Judy Hale), “The new media will work in certain places, and we’ll use the right media to reach the right people.:

There are segmented audiences (you won’t reach 15 year old via a newspaper), and we are moving form monologue to dialogue to communities. Where are those conversations taking place? Where are those communities? Mobile is a huge game changer for us. They may have never touched a laptop or a computer but they have a mobile phone. Virtual worlds is another opportunity to us. Using the right tool is a huge opportunity for us.

  • 2007 they began using Second Life. They used chat and IRC for training.
  • 2008 ECA Social Network on Ning to engage not just people in exchange programmes but engaging the whole world. Their own video contest. Went from zero to 20,000 users in months. They created a mobile game called X-Life for English language learning. They created a digital outreach team. (6 writers in Arabic, 2 in person. They are transparent that they work for the State Department. They attempt to counter misinformation.)
  • 2009 They created the Office of Innovative Engagement. They created 23 Things and the FSI training (institutional things he said)
  • 2010 They created the American Center in Jakarta and implemented a metrics programme (using something called Crimson Hexagon a metrics and opinion analysis tool )

He provided some examples such as President Obama’s speech in Ghana. They wanted to increase the engagement. The embassies in Africa created hard copy press releases to traditional media asking for text message questions. They got 17,00 SMS messages from 85 countries. They filter the questions into five categories and created a podcast that they sent out to traditional media in Africa. (FM radio is to Africa what Satellite TV is to the Middle East, a transformative shift in media.)

Global versus local. Everything is local again. He gave the example of climate change. Do people want the global picture or how sea level will change where they live?

The Department of State has 180 Facebook pages, 50 Twitter accounts and also YouTube accounts.

They are bringing contacts they made in virtual worlds in Egypt to the US, bridging the virtual and real worlds.


Journalists! Go check out the projects from Rewired State

I had Rewired State in my calendar for months because it was happening in the Guardian’s new offices, but a rather full schedule in 2009 and over-subscription of the event itself prevented me from making it. What was Rewired State?

Government isn’t very good at computers.
They spend millions to produce mediocre websites, hide away really useful public information and generally get it wrong. Which is a shame.

Calling all people who make things. We’re going to show them how it’s done.

My good friend and former colleague at the BBC, Chris Vallance, came to the tail end of the event, and he was said that the projects sparked a lot of ideas, many of the ideas that would make great journalism.

Voxpomp was one that caught my eye immediately. The idea is simple: “Statements made by MPs during Parliamentary debate cross-referenced with news stories of the time.” You can search by subject and member of parliament in a very simple interface. There is another project that allows people to log when and where they have been stopped under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000. This is code in progress, but it’s definitely an interesting idea. Foafcorp is an SVG visualisation that shows links between companies and their directors using UK Companies House Data. Here is an explanation from the developer.

The full list of projects are now available online.

That’s the good. However, how many of you had heard about the event? I wish that the organisers had done better outreach or publicity before the event. It was an obvious success because organisers told me that they had 300 applications and only space enough for 100 people so they had to ration the invites. However, the media and technology journalists at the Guardian didn’t even know about this event, even though it was happening in our building. Charles Arthur, or editor of Technology Guardian and driving force behind the Guardian’s Free Our Data campaign, hadn’t heard about it. The only reason that I knew about it is because I work closely with our development teams who were involved with it. I only received a very brief press release (frankly a one page email) from organisers on the Friday before the event. If Guardian journalists didn’t know about it, how many other journalists had heard about it until after the fact? 

I popped my head right near the end because I was meeting Chris. Suw and I saw a number of familiar faces from the Open Rights Group, MySociety and government and technology circles we know.

I know that this is a hackday and the purpose was to create new applications with public data and wasn’t necessarily concerned with making a big splash in traditional media, and I’m definitely not trying to imply that you needed journalists there to validate the project. But I think this was an important event, and I’m concerned that apart from a the participants and their followers on Twitter and a few folks who happened to find out about it,that very few people outside of those circles knew about it. I’m not even finding many blog posts about it.

Guys, you did something really good. It’s OK to let a few more people know about it. I know that organising an event takes a lot of work, and publicity might be the last thing on your to-do list. But there were some great projects that a much wider audience could easily understand. Underselling your work will make it difficult to convince the government that open data with better formats is an imporant agenda item with so many other pressing issues at the moment.

Commenting on public documents

I was impressed by the idea to post the Digital Britain interim report on a Comment-Press installation to allow people to comment on it. You can read some of the background to the project from Tony Hirst, who flagged this up on the BBC Backstage list. It really ticks a lot of public service boxes for me, and I think this is something that journalism oganisations could and should do. Hats off to Joss Winn for putting this together.

This is just the latest example of posting public documents for public comment. Gavin Bell did this with the European Constitution, and the Free Software Foundation hosted an amazing project that allowed people to comment on the GNU General Public Licence version 3. A heatmap showed down to the word level the parts of the document that were generating the most comment, and it had a very intuitive interface.

Out of the GPL project grew a service called Co-ment. I was able to grab a copy of the report, convert it to RTF and upload it. The basic level of service only allows 20 people to comment on it, and this is just my cut-and-paste coding proof of concept. If you’d like to comment, drop me an e-mail, and I’ll add you to the list, bearing in mind that I only have 20 slots available. But the public service journo-geek in me loves stuff like this.

Have a play. I’d like to see how this works. It’s already got a lot of ideas flowing.