Nine is the number: The different flavours of transparency website in 2009

Image from jaygoldman

Note: This post is a work in progress, I need your help to improve it, especially with knowledge of non-English sites

I was recently in Washington DC catching up with mySociety’s soul-mates at the Sunlight Foundation. As we talked about what was going on in the field of internet-enabled transparency, it came clear to me that there are now more identifiable categories of transparency website than there used to be.

Identifying and categorising these types of site turns out to be surprisingly useful.  First, it can help people ask “Why don’t we have anyone doing that in our country?” Second, it can help mySociety to make sure that when we’re planning ahead we don’t fail to consider certain options that be currently off our radar. Also, it gives me an excuse to tell you about some sites that you may not have seen before.

Anyway, enough preamble. Here they are as I see them – please give me more suggestions as you find them. As you can see there’s a lot more activity in some fields than others.

1. Transparency blogs & newspapers – At the technically simplest, but most manual labour-intensive end of the scale is sites, commercial and volunteer driven, whose owners use transparency to help them to write stories. Given almost every political blog does this a bit, it can be hard to name specific examples, but I will note that Heather Brooke is the UK’s pre-eminent FOI-toting journalist/blogger, and we’ve just opened a blog for our awesome volunteers on WhatDoTheyKnow to show their FOI skills to an as-yet unsuspecting public.

2. What Politicians do in their parliaments – These sites primarily include lists of politicians, and information about their primary activities in their assemblies, such as voting or speaking. This encompasses mySociety’s TheyWorkForYou.com, Rob McKinnon’s one man labour of love TheyWorkForYou in NZ, Italy’s uber-deep OpenPolis.it (6 layers of government, anyone?), Germany’s almost-un-typable Abgeordnetenwatch,  Romania’s writ-wielding IPP.ro, Josh Tauberer’sGovTrack.us, plus the bonny bouncing babies OpenAustralia and Kildare Street (Ireland). Of special note here are Mzalendo (Kenya) who unlike everyone else, can’t reply on access to a parliamentary website to scrape raw data from, and Julian Todd’s UNDemocracy (International), that has to fight incredible technical barriers to get the information out.

3. Databases of questions and answers posed to politicians – These sites let people post politicians questions, and the publish the questions and answers. The Germans running Abgeordnetenwatch (Parliament Watch) seem to have had considerable success here, with newspapers citing what politicians say on their site. Yoosk has some politicians in the UK on it, too.

4. Money in politics – This comes in two forms, money given to candidates (MAPlight), and money bunged by politicians to their favourite causes (Earmark watch). In the UK, as far as I know, the Electoral Commission’s database remains currently unscraped, perhaps because the data is so ungranular.

5. Government spending – where the big money goes. In the US the dominant site is FedSpending.org, and in the UK we have ukpublicspending.co.uk.

6. Websites containing bills going through parliament, or the law as voted on – This includes the increasingly substantial OpenCongress in the US which saw major traffic during the Health Care debates, and the UK government’s own Acts database and  Statute Law Database. Much of the legal database field, however, remains essentially private.

7. Services that create transparency as a side effect of delivering services – Our own sites lead the way here: FixMyStreet‘s public problem reports and WhatDoTheyKnow’s FOI archive are both created by people who aren’t primarily using the site to enrich it – they’re using it to get some other service.

8. Election websites – These come in many forms, but what they have in common is their desire to shed light on the positions and histories of candidates, whether incumbents or new comers. The biggest beast here is Stemwijzer (Netherlands), probably in relative terms the most used transparency or democracy site ever. However these sites are popular in several places,  the big but highly labour intensive VoteSmart (US), Smartvote.ch (Switzerland), plus others.  mySociety is shortly to start to recruit constituency volunteers to help with our take on this problem, keep an eye on this blog if you want to know more.

9. Political document archives - This is a new category, now occupied by Sunlight’s Partytime archive for invitation to political events, and TheStraightChoice, Julian Todd and Richard Pope’s wonderful new initiative for archiving election leaflets and other paper propoganda.

10. Bulk data - Online transparency pioneer Carl Malamud doesn’t do sites, he does data. Big globs zipped up and made publicly available for coders and researchers to download and process. The US government has now stepped into this field itself with Data.gov, doubtless soon to be followed by data.gov.uk.

——

Please don’t shoot me if I’ve missed anything here, the world is a big place. But I thought that was a useful and interesting exercise, and I hope you’ll both find it useful, and help me improve it too. Comment away.

11 Comments

  1. Also, please be sure to use the Center for Responsive Politics’ OpenSecrets.org, which includes a wealth of information about campaign finance and lobbying activity, among other money-in-politics issues.

  2. Alliance for Lobbying Transparency & Ethics Regulation http://www.alter-eu.org/

    A coalition of over 160 civil society groups, trade unions, academics and public affairs firms concerned with the increasing influence exerted by corporate lobbyists on the political agenda in Europe, the resulting loss of democracy in EU decision-making and the postponement, weakening, or blockage even, of urgently needed progress on social, environmental and consumer-protection reforms.

  3. Who Comments? is the UK’s only free to use biographical database of comment journalism: the opinions of commentators and columnists who write regularly for the national press in bylined, op-ed, or other columns or blogs.

    btw you’re already following on Twitter..

  4. There’s a site here in Australia that I think creates transparency by making data easier to access (like TWFY and OpenAustralia, really). It mashes up maps and list of health infringement notices served on restaurants:

    http://www.gotgastro.com/

    I guess this fits into category 7 “Services that create transparency as a side effect of delivering services”. By delivering a better service through it’s mashup, it enables transparency. What do you think, Tom?

    Ps. Check out apps4gov.planetgov20 for more Australian Gov2.0 applications.

  5. Excellent list! Under category 2 I would add Writetothem.com, although this is also linked from TheyWrokForYou.com

  6. Hi

    Just thought I’d add in the list of Twitter transparency sites. Most are listed at http://www.tweetcommons.com/about, although there are others such as our site http://www.tweetyhall.co.uk but also 2gov .org and others.

    Also in relation to number 7, there are whole swathe of projects emerging out of initiatives such as @sicamp that are creating this transparency through public service delivery, such as the recent @mypolice project or others such as @accesscity (both in development).

    There are also all the work of the Guardian through the data store project and other initiatives is doing some great work in this area, for instance the recent impactful illustration of government spending: http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/interactive/2009/sep/16/public-spending-larry-elliott.

    And then you have the whole ‘government shining a light on itself’ trend which is (thankfully) gathering pace, such as Parliament’s http://findyourmp.parliament.uk site, enabling citizens to find and connect with their MP. Or the numerous examples of government publishing performance and other data.

    One last one to add on spending in politics, the Conservative Party shadow cabinet now publishes its expenses in Google Docs.

    And plenty plenty more. Transparency is really gathering speed!

  7. RE:#8 The list you linked to is not complete, its missing several (5) national Twitter sites. A complete list can be found here [link removed, as no longer active - Oct 2013]

    I wish Canada had had a data.gov website.