March 1, 2011 — Ellen Miller, co-founder and executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, spoke at a Shorenstein Center event about “Tools for Democracy: Information for the Body Politic.” In introducing Miller, Shorenstein Center director Alex S. Jones described the Sunlight Foundation as “one of those journalistic enterprises…that you can think of genuinely as moral in their creation, in their concept and in their execution over time.”
The Sunlight Foundation “has been designed to use the power of the Internet and new technology to catalyze greater government openness and transparency,” Miller explained, “and it provides tools so that anyone can have access to that information.” Its creation was inspired by two things, she said. One was “an era of corruption in Washington” and the other was the “intersection of the worlds of technology and governance and politics.”
Miller outlined three goals of the Sunlight Foundation. First, it aims to “make it easier for media to do their reporting” by “getting data online.” Next it seeks to arm citizens with the ability to use data “as an accountability tool” and ask informed questions. Finally, it looks for new ways to “use social media as a tool for civic participation.”
Through digitizing data and developing and supporting databases, the foundation is “redefining what public information means,” Miller said. Citizens who through technology have more access to information and who can self-organize into communities “can play a much more productive and effective role in our democracy,” she said. “Technology has become a key tool for government accountability.”
Sunlight is in the “platform-building business,” Miller said, and so they have created a “suite of sites” that offer tools for “media and citizens alike.” One of those sites, Miller said, is Transparency Data. A database designed to be “infinitely expandable,” it is a “holding tank for data” such as grants, campaign financing, lobbying and earmarks at the state and federal levels. Another site is Poligraft which “identifies entities” in an article that a user is reading and “produces reports automatically,” telling “the story underneath the story,” Miller explained.
When asked by Jones about Wikileaks, Miller answered that the Sunlight Foundation is “not a whistle-blowing organization,” but “we will demand accountability when necessary.” She clarified that the organization “always reserves a space to protect personal privacy,” and it is “conscious of national security issues,” believing that “state secrets should be state secrets.”
The good news about new technology, Miller said, is that media is now “highly distributed,” but the bad news is that people don’t always exercise good judgment, and “we can’t put the genie back in bottle.”
This article was written by Janell Sims and the photos taken by Heather McKinnon, both of the Shorenstein Center.