Sunlight’s Scout is a promising new tool

Service allows journalists to track activity in Congress, federal agencies, state legislatures

The busy folks at Sunlight Labs recently unveiled a nifty new feature that should be useful for advocates, policy wonks, and journalists alike.

Scout, which was first introduced in beta back in April, is sort of like Google Alerts for legislative and regulatory activity. Users can set up notifications for keywords (a particular phrase, a pending bill, a subsection of a statute) and Scout will deliver alerts via email or SMS whenever there’s news. The data sources Sunlight has drawn on cover debate and activity in Congress; publications in the Federal Register, which tracks regulatory filings; and formal action in state legislatures. So, for example, the program would have been a handy way to track progress on the FCC’s new rule requiring local broadcasters to post their public files online—or, as The Washington Examiner’s Mark Tapscott notes, to find out what’s happening regarding particulate regulation.

These information alerts have obvious value to advocacy groups, especially those without deep lobbying resources, and Sunlight says Scout already deserves credit for helping transparency groups oppose an overly broad FOIA exemption. From a journalistic perspective, the notifications for federal regulatory agencies and statehouses are probably most exciting. Those are some of the most important, least-covered government institutions in the country; if Scout can make work a little easier for the stretched-thin reporters on those beats, it’ll be valuable.

Sunlight’s engineers have also built in some extra bells and whistles—you can add external RSS feeds to a Scout subscription, and it’s possible to make your subscriptions public—and they promise more in the future.

In the meantime, you can get your own Scout search started here, or watch a tutorial on how to use it below:

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.