Colin Delany May 3, 2007

Wired News: Web Mashups Turn Citizens Into Washington’s Newest Watchdogs

[Update: My dad just reminded me that he had essentially the same idea as MapLight…about 11 years ago. Always ahead of your time, eh? Wait until I tell these kids about your open-source machine tool project — that’ll blow some minds.]

“Coming soon to a blog near you: Ajax widgets that track the effects of campaign contributions on congressional votes.” A few days ago, Wired News published a great look at the potential of data mashups to give people new chances to keep tabs on elected officials and on the influence of industries and interest groups. The article focuses on one particular application called MapLight, which tracks the influence of money on California politics and which is about to go national in partnership with OpenSecrets.org:

Next month, MapLight.org will extend its database, which currently only tracks the California legislature, to include data from the 110th U.S. Congress. The site will also roll out a custom reporting tool that will let users add their own data. If the data is accepted by an administrator, it will be included in the central database.

Say someone learns at a cocktail party that the airline industry plans to oppose an upcoming bill. With the relaunch, that information can be added to MapLight.org’s list of industries opposing the legislation. The information won’t be added to the public database until it is verified by the site’s admins, but it will show up in the user’s custom report, which they are free to share.

MapLight.org’s open-data initiative epitomizes a technique known as “database journalism,” a new reporting paradigm that allows citizens to act as consumers, custodians and contributors to vast wells of information stored in web databases.

Until recently, this kind of data was only available to a handful of reporters who often had to sift through thousands of pages of documents to track it down. Even after it began to be compiled in electronic form, it was still largely the province of hyper-geeky computer-assisted journalists and not the general public. Now, we can combine official government data sources with the more anecdotal evidence from the cocktail party above (but please please verify before posting!) to get an unprecedented picture of political relationships and their influence on the system. Hmmmmm, I wonder where this idea has come up before?

More on political mashups and on political applications of online maps.

cpd

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