During the Watergate scandal that eventually toppled President Richard Nixon, confidential source "Deep Throat" advised two enterprising Washington Post reporters to "follow the money" to uncover the scandal's ringleaders.
Now MAPLight.org, a small, not-for-profit company, is developing a database and application mashup that will allow the public to follow another money trail-the connection between campaign contributions and the way lawmakers vote.
The mashup brings together two usually disparate sources of information-donor money and vote data-in an interactive map.
The maps illustrate the link between the amount of money elected officials receive from donors, the way that those elected officials vote on a given issue, and what position the donor-such as a political action committee-was taking on an issue when it contributed to the officials' campaigns.
For example, the H.R. 5252 bill, which was before Congress in 2006, was originally designed to create a national cable franchise and provide the Federal Communications Commission with the authority to ensure net neutrality.
The end result was "a telephone bill that did not ensure net neutrality," said Dan Newman, co-founder and executive director of MAPLight.org. "The telecommunications companies really favored the bill-they didn't want net neutrality-while Google and Yahoo opposed it. You can see on our Web site that the telephone utilities gave an average of $15,000 to each legislator voting yes-almost triple the amount for legislators voting no."
The company currently has a database that tracks every single bill in Congress and it is working, through volunteers and funding donations, to extend the service to 50 states.
But to finish the actual coding on the Mapping Money and Politics mashup, MAPLight.org is entering the NetSquared's N2Y3 Mashup Challenge. The contest, put on by NetSquared-another not-for-profit company whose mission is to "spur responsible adoption of social Web tools by social benefit organizations," according to its Web site-has a $100,000 prize.
"We have collected data to contributions and to members of Congress. We've geo-coded it with latitude and longitude [data] and we've designed the [user] interface," said Sean Tanner, research manager at MAPLight.org. "What we have to do now is the actual programming."
MAPLight.org combines three data sets to populate the maps: bill texts and legislative voting records; campaign contribution data from the Center for Responsive Politics and the National Institute on Money and State Politics. What it brings to the table that no one else does at this point is the supporting and opposing interest documentation for each bill.
"The first two pieces of data are public information-campaign finance and legislation finance," said Newman. "Our research team works on the third piece of this."
MAPLight.org currently has five full time staff members and 10 research interns, who are typically undergraduates studying political science. Because the company wants to bring its service to every state in the nation, but currently lacks the funds to do so, it also has a volunteer programmer program.