CAMP 2013: A date with data

By 2013 Fellow Sarah D. Wire

Gwyneth Doland organized and moderated “A Date with Data: Liberating government data and using it to tell sexy stories”

Sunlight Foundation

Sunlight Foundation has an embarrassment of riches, of tools,” Sunlight Foundation Managing Editor Kathy Kiely said to start her presentation.

A copy of her presentation is available here. Sunlight is a nonprofit organization aimed at government transparence and openness.

“We do our own journalism and we’d love to partner with you,” Kiely said.

Sunlight has a range of data sets avaiable to journalists and the public. Links to all of them are at

“This will help you get better at your job,” Kiely said. “They basically do the nitty gritty coding so you don’t have to.”

To start is a way to explore what influence an organization has at The site includes, among other things, information on lobbying, regulations, earmarks, federal spending and EPA violations.

“Lobbying doesn’t end when a bill is passed. The lobbying continues when the regulations are being written to implement a law,” Kiely said.

Searching by name requires a certain level of influence, but you can find individuals by filtering search results by contributor, etc. You may download the data in a comma-delimited file, which can be used in most spreadsheet programs such as Excel. Influence Explorer is great for historic data because it has been cleaned, she said.

Realtime Federal Election Commission eports may be found at It is updated multiple times each day. The data and search capabilities are not as detailed, but is provide a broad picture, Kiely said. You may subscribe to alerts for specific federal campaign finance reports.

Political Ad Slueth is a tool to track campaign ads, and encourages users to help contribute information.

Have a new beat, or need to get smarter, faster? Try Sunlight’s Scout, with speeches, state or congressional legislation, federal regulations or Government Accountability Office reports on a particular topic. You may also subscribe to alerts when new information is added.

“Voila, instant expertise,” Kiely said.

For state level information, Open States scrapes information from state websites and makes it searchable in real time. Users may also set up specific alerts here. As an example of how the site is useful, Kiely pointed to a an article that ran the afternoon of the Sandy Hook Shooting on Dec. 14 that looked at National Rifle Association donations to Connecticut candidates.

Open Congress tracks the actions of the U.S. House and Senate and recently relaunched, Kiely said.

“It’s a way to cut through the B.S. of legislative language,” Kiely said.

For information about campiagn fundraisers, Sunlight offers Political Partytime, which shows political fundraising invitations. The site includes a map of where fundraisers cluster.

Chicago Sun-Times Washington Bureau Chief Lynn Sweet suggested staking out the locations of these political fundraisers to see who is coming and going.

“That’s why this is incredibly valuable intel,” Sweet said.

Kiely asked members to send Sunlight Foundation political invitations and snap a photo of who sponsors the event.

“This helps us build an archive. This is a news coup,” she said.


Software to turn data into interactive graphics is available for free from Tableau.
Looking at data visually tells a different story than just crunching numbers, Tableau Data Analyst Jewel Loree said.

She said she will provide one on one help at . The software is .html based so it is easy to embed on your website and the visualization can let readers explore the data in a way that is meaningful to them or help you explain your story, she said.

“You don’t need to know any programming. Basically you bring the data in,” Loree said.

Loree said a simple visualization can take an hour or two to create. More involved visualizations or larger data sets take longer, such as a month.

Currently, Tableau only works for PCs, but a Mac version of the free software will be available early in 2014.

“We help people see and understand their data,” Loree said.

Any full time student or Investigative Reporters and Editors member may get a license to the full Tableau Software, she said.