Transparency Corps Debuts

Thanks to about a minute of my time, America is a small step closer to being able to easily find out what Representative Robert Aderholt was after when he requested an earmark for an industrial park in Arab, Alabama.

This morning at the Personal Democracy Forum the Sunlight Foundation announced, a new web site that will allow people asking “how can I help” to find a quick answer.

Take the earmark example. In 2010, each member of congress was required, for the first time, to make their earmark requests available on their official websites. The thing is that they weren’t required to do so in any standard format—some put them up as a word processing document, others as plain text on a page, others in chart form.

But one popular option was to put them up as Acrobat .pdf files, either in a single file, or in one file per request. Alabama’s Rep. Aderholt took that last approach.

But until Aderholt’s requests, and those of every other representative, are in some sort of machine readable, standardized database, there’s a lot that could be done with the data—visualizations, searches, and mash-up—that for now remains trapped in unfriendly formats.

“We have a problem at Sunlight,” says Clay Johnson, the head of the programming team behind the site. “That is that our government gives us data that our computers can’t understand, and there’s nothing we can do about it but work harder.”

And here’s where users come in: after logging on and volunteering—as simple as a couple clicks—the user can compare the text of the earmark request as pulled out of the .pdf by Sunlight’s text recognition program with the actually .pdf. If the software got anything wrong, it’s easy to make a tweak before submitting the correct text to a new database that Sunlight is creating.

Aderholt’s earmarks are on the site more or less as a demo; TransparencyCorps will simplify and distribute other kinds of small tasks to volunteers around to the world.

The only other “task” at available at the moment is more advocacy oriented, and asks users to upload a picture of themselves holding a sign reading “read the bill,” meant to encourage the passage of House Resolution 554, which would require that all non-emergency legislation be online for 72 hours before voting.

That’s a different sort of task than cleaning up the government’s data, but Sunlight has constructed a rather open ended tool. While the site just launched today, Sunlight plans to make Transparency Corps available to other organizations with projects they’d like to slice into a thousands easy pieces. Beyond that, the code is open source, and therefore should be easily adapted and appropriated by other organization interested in building their own online task sharing applications.

Yes, reassured Johnson, Sunlight is not indefinitely volunteering to be the federal government’s public interest scanning and transcribing service, and is still pushing for data to be released in machine readable formats in the first place. But who knows when that might happen?

“We can’t wait that long,” said Johnson.

DISCLOSURE: CJR’s Transparency reporting is supported by the Sunlight Foundation.

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.