Holding individual politicians to account in an age of big data should be more than possible. It should be trivially easy. The basic challenge is surfacing salient details amid ongoing noise — which is exactly where technology tools can shine.
Robust local news media, which traditionally played the scrutinizing role, has undoubtedly been weakened by the Internet. Which is why Solomon Kahn, who runs Paperless Post’s data team during the day, is building (and crowdfunding) a data visualization tool for U.S. political campaign contributions — to make it easier to follow the money to identify any corrupting influences on federal politicians.
He wants it to be a tool for journalists, as well as a way for the U.S. public to more easily understand their political representative’s corporate/union interests. He’s aiming for each politician tracked by the tool to have an overview landing page where salient details about how they finance their political campaign are surfaced. Users will be able to submit any notable details they discover — so he’s also looking to foster and host crowdsourced reportage on the platform. Very cool.
The tool, which is still in development at this point (and which Kahn plans to open source), offers an overview of proportional donations flowing to an individual politician by industry sector over time, as well as letting users drill down to inspect specific donations — to make it easier to identify things like patterns of donations coming from employees of a single company. All of which can then be cross-referenced with a politician’s voting record.
“I was looking for a side project where I could use my data skills to do something good for the world. I thought that money in politics was a big problem, and also an area with a lot of data, but not a lot of visibility by the public or reporters, as to what was really going on. I figured I would take a shot at building something, and it turned out much better than I expected!” says Kahn, explaining the genesis of the project.
The tool, which he’s called Explore Campaign Finance, uses a cleaned up form of the data outputted by the Federal Election Commission, from an organization called OpenSecrets. It has campaign contribution data on more than 24,000 federal politicians over the past 25 years.
“People have already built some great tools to look at campaign finance data, even though they aren’t as full featured as this. The programming frameworks to make a project like this haven’t been around for so long, and there aren’t that many people who know them. Additionally, if an organization wanted to build a project like this, it would be pretty expensive, and although people are donating money to fight against money in politics, it’s at a different scale than the people who are donating massive amounts of money to politicians,” he adds.
“No single person or media organization could possibly investigate the funding sources of 24,000 federal politicians, but with the help of the internet, we might actually be able to hold every single politician accountable for how they raise money.”
At the time of writing Kahn has almost reached the $15,000 fundraising goal on his Kickstarter campaign. He’s aiming to use the money to pay for the servers to run the tool and for outreach to journalists to get them using the tool as a reporting aid.
More details in his explainer video below.