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.
Bringing key information to the surface
Called “Adopt a State,” the program recruits programmers with PHP, MySQL, Flash and mapping skills, who chose one of the country’s states and work with MAPLight.org to write scripts to put that state’s legislation and vote data in the company’s database.
Combining the legislation and vote data brings key information to the surface, according to the company, including contributions given by interest groups supporting and opposing each bill; average donations given to legislators voting for and against each bill; and a timeline of contributions and votes for each bill, graphically identifying when legislators received large donations before or after their votes.
Mapping the data will also provide a visual image of where members of Congress get their funding, whether funding comes from voters and special interest groups that live in close proximity to a specific member of congress, or from individuals and special interest groups in another state. It also tracks who the special interests are in each state, city or neighborhood that fund a specific campaign, according to MAPLight’s NetSquared press release.
There is an end to the means with the mapping mashup, according to Newman.
“Before it was difficult to point to influencers with any specificity,” said Newman. “It’s been known what amounts were given [to politicians from special interest groups] and there’s been a known outcome with legislation, but money and votes were never put into one database,” he said.
Newman and his colleagues “that started this organization, did so because it was very frustrating to figure out where money and votes were tied together. That’s what’s ground breaking about our work. We can say legislators voted this way-we put the data out there for everyone to see, for bloggers to comment on, for the press to hold legislators responsible,” said Newman.
MAPLight has a good shot at winning the $100,000, according to Newman. Last year the company entered a similar contest put on by NetSquared and won the $25,000 top prize to build a Presidential Money Race Widget, a tool that measured campaign fund raising efforts.
But what if the project doesn’t win? “We’ll keep seeking funding for mapping,” said Newman. “We’re seeking volunteer programmers to help us develop” the project further.