Business - Written by on Monday, March 2, 2009 10:50 - 6 Comments

Profiling the powers that be on the un-facebook

While doing some research on government transparency, I came across a new website called LittleSis.
LittleSis (currently in Beta version) is a new initiative from the Sunlight Foundation (est. 2006), online catalyst for political transparency and accountability in government (Anthony Williams wrote about them last month).  Sunlight’s previous platforms include OpenCongress.org and FedSpending.org.

littlesis

LittleSis mixes Facebook-ish user interface with Wikipedia-like user editing to create profiles of the “powers that be” in both the private and public sectors.  Users who register as analysts can log in and add information to profiles of major figures like Barack Obama, Robert Rubin or Bill Gates.  The site focuses on 3 main factors about an individual:  Relationships (which includes Business/Government positions, other memberships, education and donation/grant recipients), Interlocks (people in common organizations), Giving (who they’ve donated to, as well as other individuals that have given to the same recipients) and the basic personal information.

Like Facebook, LittleSis also includes groups.  When I look up Citi Group, I can see their leadership and staff, but I also get a look at people and organizations that Citi has done businesses with. My favorite group feature is the “targets of lobbying”, where I learn that from ’99-’08, they lobbied the Senate and House 19 times.  They also lobbied the Department of Education 7 times between ’04 and ’07 (why would that be?)  If I go to the Department of Education group, I can follow up and see who they’ve done business with, who’s lobbied them, and which organizations have leadership and staff in common with the Department.  I can also check out which organizations have received donations from people who work in the Department.

The key to LittleSis is that it’s not Barack Obama, Citi Group or the Department of Education controlling their own profile and network.  Analysts like myself (I signed up for an account) are the ones doing the writing and editing, much like Wikipedia.  LittleSis also has a metric for determining which Analysts score the most points for making edits – a good system to (hopefully) maintain the integrity of the site.

At this point, there are a few shortcomings to LittleSis.  As I mentioned, the site is still in a Beta version, so it’s not a completed project yet.  Also, you can certainly question the accuracy of the information, and more importantly, the completeness of it.  I can read that a major CEO donated to groups x, y and z, but he may also have donated to a, b and c, with that information not yet uploaded.  As with Wikipedia, I think that a major prerequisite to a complete and successful version of LittleSis will be achieving a critical mass of users to police information and ensure the completeness of it.

Regardless of this shortcoming, I see a lot of potential in LittleSis.  Having this kind of facebook-like platform to follow donations and relationships among America’s elite is a fantastic development for public and private transparency.  Previously, we had to rely on journalists to follow the string and inform us about these relationships.  This website, if successful, allows individual citizens to see this themselves in a platform that’s very similar to the facebook sites they’re so adept at navigating.

The Sunlight Foundation is on the right track – let’s hope that LittleSis gets a strong enough user base to reach its potential.



6 Comments

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Twowan
Mar 2, 2009 20:29

This is a great idea. It is going to need some improvements but, at the core, it is brilliant. We need to have our officials strictly monitored. We need this information to make our electoral choices. Too often, we hear about politicians from the media, watch their campaigns but still have no idea what they really stand for. We need a place where information is amalgamated and processed in an easy to access site. I hope that the creators of LittleSis can address the fact that many officials have “interns” who can spend hours reviewing and modifying data until it suits their bosses. This is where the wiki system has to be truly perfected. The interlock feature pointing at possible collusion between decision makers is extremely valuable. Last point, I do get the name of the site (LittleSis) but it makes it sound like a gimmick. We need wikis that inspire trust.

Alex Marshall
Mar 3, 2009 9:50

Twowan,

I agree with you on all of those points.
As for improvements, I think the site admins know this (it’s still in Beta).
But yes, as a means to monitor officials, I absolutely love the interlock feature.

In addressing the interns, I think the key issue is transparency among the analysts (editors). To sign up as an analyst, you have to state who you are and why you have an interest in it. That said, I think there is value in having a politician/CEO’s intern adding to the Wiki, as long as they’re just one of several (3rd party) analysts contributing.

Wikinomics» Blog Archive » Bringing transparency to your browser: Knowmore.org
Mar 10, 2009 14:12

[...] to LittleSis (which is admittedly only a Beta), Knowmore has shortcomings based on usage. For this site to [...]

Bringing transparency to your browser: Knowmore.org « Alex Marshall’s Blog
Mar 20, 2009 23:27

[...] to LittleSis (which is admittedly only a Beta), Knowmore has shortcomings based on usage. For this site to [...]

Wikinomics» Blog Archive » What are they saying in Congress?
Mar 25, 2009 9:20

[...] another development from the Sunlight Foundation (who we’ve written about previously – here, here and here). Capitol Words is a program that takes every word entered into the congressional [...]

What are they saying in Congress? « Alex Marshall’s Blog
Apr 12, 2009 22:05

[...] another development from the Sunlight Foundation (who we’ve written about previously – here, here and here). Capitol Words is a program that takes every word entered into the congressional [...]

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