Explore Campaign Finance Contributions Like Never Before
With every political issue -- from the environment to education to mass surveillance -- big money is corrupting our politicians. The problem is so widespread that investigative reporters can only keep up with a fraction of the corruption that goes on every single day in Washington.
This is a problem where there is actually lots and lots of data, but there haven't been enough tools to take that data and make it easy for people to understand it. Until now.
I've built an amazing system to visualize campaign finance contributions, and need your help to launch it to the world.
The hardest thing about these kinds of systems is building them, and in this case, the system is already built. I'm looking for help from kickstarter, to make sure that this project doesn't just get finished and disappear into a dark corner of the internet, but that people all across the country can use it to shine a light on the money used to finance political campaigns.
The funds raised will be used for servers to make sure the site is able to withstand the traffic of being a public site, and to do outreach to get this in the hands of people who need it, especially journalists.
So What Can This Thing Do?
This system can visualize campaign finance contributions like nothing else. To get a full picture of the interactivity, check out the video, where you can see the system in action.
You can look at any politician from the OpenSecrets data set, which includes data for over 24,000 federal politicians for the past 25 years.
You can see how much they raised per election cycle, split out by the industries they raised money from. You can then see, within each industry, how much money came from various sectors.
For example, if you were looking at the finance industry, you could dig in more to see how much came from commercial banks, real estate firms, or securities brokers.
You can see all this data from either the total dollar amount raised, or by the percentage of total money raised.
You can see this split up between individuals only, pacs only, or combined together.
From within each sector or industry, you can see which companies and pacs combined to make up that total amount raised.
You can finally look into those companies, and see every single individual who donated.
You Too Can Be a Campaign Finance Researcher
Once we launch the site, we will set up a form so that people can submit interesting things they find about a politician. Then, we will list all those findings on the visualization page for that politician.
This way, we can capture the interesting things you discover when browsing the site, and show them to journalists and voters who come to that politician's visualization page.
No single person or media organization could possibly investigate the funding sources of 24,000 federal politicians, but with the help of the internet, we might actually be able to hold every single politician accountable for how they raise money.
How Did This Project Come To Be
This project started as an idea 18 months ago, that wasn't nearly as ambitious as this system turned out to be.
At my day job, I run the data team at Paperless Post (we're hiring!), and I was interested in working on a side project that utilized my data skills to make the world a better place.
Campaign finance is an area where there is lots and lots of data, but the people who really need that data, like journalists and voters, aren't able to use it to make extremely important decisions.
My goal was to make this data more accessible. It started by taking the OpenSecrets dataset of federal campaign contributions, and turning that into an open source database that any programmer could plug into to start running queries. That project now powers this visualization, is completely free and open source, and anyone who knows SQL can find it here and start to look at the data.
However, the overwhelming majority of people don't know SQL, and so this wasn't enough to give people clarity into what was really going on with campaign contributions.
So, I decided to start working on this visualization system, where anyone, regardless of technical ability, could get a transparent picture into who politicians were raising money from.
Help Along The Way
Along the way, I was helped along by a mini-grant from the Sunlight Foundation, which covered hosting costs until now.
I also signed on as a Network Fellow at the Harvard University Safra Center for Ethics, a program run by Lawrence Lessig, who inspired me to think about this problem in the first place. That felt pretty awesome.
Why I Need Your Help
This project offers the opportunity to help make a massive change for the better in campaign finance, for only a few thousand dollars.
If you've read this far, you probably agree it turned out too good to share the fate of most academic projects, which gather dust in a dark corner of the internet. This is a tool that people across the country can use to hold our politicians accountable, and we need to get it in their hands.
There are two things I need your help with to make sure this project is able to fill a role educating people about how our politicians raise money.
The most important is that I need some help getting this into the right people's hands. I know my strengths and weaknesses, and I know if I want this project to make a big impact, I need someone who can spend time reaching out to journalists, and helping them understand how to use this tool.
I've found someone who has a lot of experience working to help journalists understand campaign finance data, and I want to have him work on this for four months, 20 hours a week, to help work with journalists in using this tool. If we raise more than the minimum, that money will go towards keeping him around longer so that we can do even more outreach.
The second thing I am looking for is some help with hosting costs. Right now this system will support about 20 concurrent users, and that's not nearly enough.
There are thousands of potential front page of reddit stories hidden in 25 years of campaign finance data, and I want to make sure that at the moment people find something amazing, the site can handle the traffic that will result.
Open Source License
This project will be released as open source, which means people in other countries throughout the world, as well as state governments and non-profit government watchdog organizations, can use this framework for their data, free of charge.
Risks and challenges
If something were to happen to me, I'm not sure if this project would get completed. However, the code for the project is shared with people besides me, and will be open sourced, so anyone could pick this up and run with it.
In general, the biggest risk of these types of systems is in getting them built in the first place, and in this case, it's already pretty much done.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
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