Tuesday America ventured out in what election-activist groups say
was “the most heavily watched election in history,” with volunteer
lawyer battalions and an arsenal of media contacts, corruption
databases and documentation systems at the ready.
As voter watchdog groups stood guard, the Sunlight Foundation
and its contributors determined exactly how Congress members dipped
into their war chests. If nothing else, this was the most open source
election in our nation’s history.
Sunlight, a funder of NewAssignment, and its citizen researchers are
looking into how Congressional candidates pay their spouses directly or
indirectly using campaign money. As Jay Rosen stated,
“the practice is not illegal”-but it is “questionable.” Since Jay’s
post the Sunlight Foundation has picked up even more momentum-with
mentions in the San Francisco Chronicle and Austin American-Statesman.
As of November 6th, all Congress members had been investigated and Sunlight’s Bill Allison was about to start combing through the “raw results“-which asserted that 19 spouses were paid a total of $636,876 since January 1, 2005.
The distributed research model at the core of Sunlight’s Congressional Family Business Project may offer some insight into how open source journalism research can and should be structured. One key, which I think Craig Silverman
will appreciate, is verification. The other – context. Sunlight’s data
raises important questions about our Congressmen. Now we must look
behind those numbers to give them meaning.
I spoke to my friend Ryan Hagen, who recently founded the online election magazine Primarily,
about the Family Business Project – he is a fan of the idea but warned
that “data alone is not knowledge.” The project is an “incredible
innovation” but “demands an equally innovative process to complement
it.” Ryan even had a few ideas for how Sunlight might improve its
One next step Sunlight could take is by crowdsourcing a project to contact
the representatives in question, asking them to explain themselves.
Another step would be to contact ethicists, political scientists and
other experts to get a handle on why this practice isn’t illegal, and
whether or not it should be.
In the open journalism universe, verification and context are the
difference between open source journalism and straight-up open news.
And there is enormous value in both.
Analyzing and verifying news is part of the definition of “journalism.” At this end of the open journalism spectrum we see the efforts of OhMyNews and the goals of NewAssignment.Net.
At the open news end of the spectrum, the focus is more on helping to
collect and present citizen news, without the editors. Sites like Newsvine and GroundReport fit into this category.
The public has a host of tools at its disposal, and it’s ready to
use them. The challenge now is to make sure the tools we create are
effective and deserve to be wielded by masses on the march for