A gold mine of data will soon be available to help make our political system more transparent, thanks to the Federal Communication Commission. But this gold will be useless unless it’s extracted, shaped, and polished.
Let’s first review what the FCC did—and did not do—last week. Local TV stations already collect information about political advertising; the FCC required that they move these paper records out of the filing cabinets on to the Internet. Stations in the top 50 markets that are affiliated with networks (ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox) will have to put their files online soon; the rest of the stations have until 2014.
The first tranche of stations, in fact, will have to start doing this when the rule goes into effect, which will be as soon as OMB publishes it in the federal register. I’m guessing within the next few months.
The files are tantalizing because:
—Unlike Federal Election Commission records, it includes spending for state and local races.
—Unlike the FEC records, it includes spending for national issue ads.
—Stations are required to update the files frequently, usually within 48 hours, a sprightlier pace than the FEC.
—Unlike the FEC, the FCC requires that outside groups, including Super Pacs, list the “chief executive officers or members of the executive committee or of the board of directors.”
Given smart, energetic journalists, the data could eventually allow for the following:
—Data visualization mavens could create color-coded, dynamically changing maps showing the flow of money to different districts or states on a daily basis.
—Reporters will also be able to tell which specific ads ran in which markets at what frequency.
—Local and hyperlocal journalists can find out quickly how much is being spent on particular campaigns, not just for the presidency but local races and ballot initiatives.
—Reporters can use the FCC files to check whether campaigns have been accurately disclosing their campaign spending. Shockingly, a study in Michigan found that far more money was being spent on commercials than had been reported to the state election office.
—By looking at which shows political ads run on, journalists can better understand what demographic groups the campaigns are targeting.
That’s the glass-half-full part. Now the truth is, while the FCC did a great thing in forcing this information online, the rule has real limitations, and the full benefits will not be achieved without some additional energetic and creative citizen action. Specifically:
Put the information in a better format. In order to get the information out in time for this election, the FCC agreed that the stations could upload their current paper files—in PDFs or other potentially cumbersome formats. These records will be housed in a central place, on the FCC’s website, and will likely be partly searchable. The agency indicated it may use Optical Scanning Readers to try to pluck data in some cases.
But the data will be far more useful if some of the key stats can be put into a single searchable database with information in a standardized format. Only then will reporters be able to do the sophisticated tracking, data visualization, and sorting that will make this data come to life.
Enter The Crowd: reporters, citizen volunteers, and public interest groups can go through the PDFs and put data in proper database cells. Public interest groups and journalistic entities are currently considering how to do this. Hopefully, a single database or API can be created by an independent third party that would allow for large numbers of dispersed reporters and citizens to code and load. I hope foundations and philanthropists on all sides of the political aisle will support such efforts.
Fill in the gaps. In order to avoid any possible burden on small stations, the FCC limited the 2012 implementation to bigger stations in bigger markets. That first wave of stations accounts for about 60 percent of the campaign spending. The rest don’t have to comply until 2014. In addition, Univision is excluded from the current rule, an unfortunate omission given the importance of the Latino vote in this election. But remember, these smaller stations already disclose the same information—in paper files in filing cabinets. In the months prior to the FCC rule passing, a number of groups sent reporters or volunteers out to copy the paper files. Now a similar coalition—so far, the Sunlight Foundation, Free Press, and the New America Foundation—is organizing to gather PDFs from these smaller market stations. I expect journalistic enterprises like ProPublica and CJR will too (as they did before), and I hope conservative groups join the efforts; transparency is not a partisan issue.