To combat today’s snow, I’m paying more attention to the Sunlight Foundation. Ellen Miller, co-founder with Michael Klein, made time after her weekend at Transparency Camp to answer my email inquiries about projects, e-innovations, and how the org measures its sunlight strength:
CP: Sunlight boast so many fascinating projects; if you had to pick just one (or two), which do you think fosters the best open dialogue? In other words, which allows for the best exchanges, the smoothest networking, and the easiest sharing between and among political figures the public and/or the public?
EM: Sunlight’s work is mostly about transparency of government data, particularly the date that concerns money, power, and influence. But the site that fosters the best open dialogue would be OpenCongress, which allows you to connect with others over legislation that you might both have an interest in. It allows you to create your own pages (via the My OpenCongress features) and allows you to share things you are reading (through My Political Notebook features). My second choice would be Congresspedia—a wiki just on congress. The latter project is being merged with OpenCongress.
CP: The internet came into play mid-career for you. Can you recall at what point you realized the communications channels and overall information dissemination model needed to shift?
EM: I realized the power of the technology—for communication in particular—pretty much from the beginning. I’ve been an early adapter, as they say. Our first home computer was the 1984 “Baby” MAC. It’s been a long love affair with technology since then. But, a seminal article by Tim O’Reilly, “What is Web 2.0“, was a real eye opener when I read it in the fall of 2005.
CP: Many of my 20- and 30-something peers are hesitant to adopt emerging technologies…
EM: Really? Hard to imagine!…
CP: …yeah, so I can’t imagine the resistance you have gotten from even more deeply tradition-laden lawmakers. Any particularly funny responses you would be willing to share?
EM: Well, responses we get from members of congress (MOC) are not so amusing as they are horrifying. One member told me, when we were discussing the possibility of putting daily schedules online, “That’s more information than anyone needs to know.” Mostly the responses we get are ones of bafflement—MOC in large part just don’t understand the technology and what it can do for (and to) them. They know email is overwhelming now and so they hate it. But this is changing. More and more MOC are on Twitter, for example. The few early adopters in the House and Senate are pusher others into it. As one colleague puts it, most MOC don’t get the difference between a server and a waiter.
CP: How does Sunlight measure its impact?
EM: We have specific metrics in terms of media mentions, email list subscriptions, op ed endorsements, visitors, and searches on sites that we both run and that we fund.
CP: Do you track who (demos or otherwise) makes up your audience? What, if any, evaluation methods are in place to measure not only the amount of sunlight you are shining, but what audience(s) are “soaking up the sun”?
EM: We have done a survey of users. But honestly we can’t do enough. I think we have to do a better job of deciding who our audiences are and targeting them more directly. (We believe they should be journalists/bloggers, the online engaged citizen activists, and elected officials.)
*Special thanks to Ellen Miller for her time and to Elizabeth for helping me coordinate this interview!*