Daniel Schuman of Demand Progress & Congressional Data Coalition discusses the Sunlight Foundation wind down

@daniel_schuman: Hi everyone! To begin, see the announcement from Sunlight and the Politico story. What's the future of open legislative data with the recent trouble in the nonprofit #opengov world? For example, see this news about Sunlight Foundation shutting down its labs.

@teddy: Thanks for being here! As you know, Cloakroom & Capitol Bells rely heavily on Sunlight's APIs. I love that I can reliably get all the most important legislative data all in one place. Will the shutdown of Sunlight Labs result in a fragmentation of this data and the congressional data community?  You've identified a real problem. Congressional offices and many others rely on data made available by Sunlight. Many functions are performed by others, and Congress has stepped up to publish some of its information as data. But there are gaps.

@fogg.mcmahon: Can you explain what an API is and why it's important?  An API is a way a computer can request information from another computer. So when you ask, what's the text for HR1234, it will give you that information as an answer. Without it, we're stuck in the world of PDF.

It's the publishing of staff salary information that allowed me to argue for pay raises for staff and point to fewer staff now than existed historically. Only now is there a realization from many members that they've gone too far, and it's the data that allowed us to make those arguments.

@brodhead.blodgett: What about having the House pay for an api? That was one of the top recommendations from the congressional Hackathon report from last year.  Yes, the House (and Senate) should be publishing more data. Even when they do, they're not good at combining it together. There's a need to build tools that bring everything together.

@grayson.kennedy: @daniel_schuman Which groups do you think are most likely to pick up the slack on Sunlight Labs?  That's a good question. I run the congressional data coalition, and we do some of that work. OpenGovFoundation can play a role here, and GovTrack often has as well. But there's no obvious successor. Sunlight had tons more funding than everyone else put together. 

@teddy: What do you think this Sunlight Foundation wind down means for the congressional data community, and what does it say about its financial health given that Sunlight had by and far the most funding?  There have been tons of problems in the OpenGov community generally. Center for Effective government wound down, CREW merged with David Brock's empire; and some others are shaky. With only a few foundations funding OpenGov, it says a lot about their priorities.

Also, in each (but one) of the examples I'm thinking about, there were leadership transitions that created instability. Running a non-profit is hard. There's not a lot of money out there in this space, and few want to pay for infrastructure. But it is essential.

 @fogg.mcmahon: Maybe it's turning out that money's influence is overrated and/or nobody cares?  Maybe it's that money is so influential it has cut off those exposing its role? Seriously, funding by Foundations is "faddy," and there's been major problems w/ OpenGov nonprofits over the last few years.

@sam.ward: Do you think we are entering a new era where the things that need the most transparency are the hardest to track? Influence is more than things like campaign contributions.  OpenGov is about more than tracking influence. It's about making gov't work better for everyone, including tools to make the lives of congressional staff much better.

Let me put it this way. When you're trying to analyze information, is it more useful to have a PDF containing a table of data or an excel spreadsheet? That's the value of open data.

When you do a side-by-side, wouldn't it be much easier to have that completed at the press of a button and not have to be done by hand? Or when examining to see who changed positions?

@sam.ward: What tools do you think are needed to make our congressional lives better?  I have a list on congressional data.org. But to start, you need better constituent management tools; the ability to see automatically how an amendment would change a bill/ would change the law; better web tools.

@sam.ward: But why do I care about how amendments change the law if I'm in a polarized Congress? It seems like you're blaming lack of data for polarization, even with data I suspect offices will largely behave the same.  Even in a polarized congress, you still need to start from the same baseline. Knowing what a bill does--or would do--is foundational to arguing about what it should do. 

@daniel_schuman: Okay, everyone, I'm going to stop for now. If you want to talk about major congressional OpenGov efforts, like the FOIA bill that just was passed, the DATA Act, whistleblower protections, and more -- come by Rayburn 2456 today at 2pm. Reps. Issa and Quigley are hosting a briefing.