Why LittleSis Matters

There are thousands of people in the US, and plenty more around the world, who spend every day investigating the ties between people in the upper circles of government and business. These people have diverse backgrounds: investigative journalists, social scientists, political opposition researchers, social justice activists, public interest attorneys, and business intelligence types. There are thousands more amateur dirt diggers at the fringes, posting their findings to blogs, message boards, email lists, zines, and elsewhere.

These researchers don’t usually think of themselves as a community. They work on their own projects, occasionally encountering each others’ work and building upon it. Their work, if unpublished, is consigned to the purgatory of old filing cabinets and hard drives. As the internet has become by far the most important research and publishing tool available to them and their organizations, more of this research has found its way onto the web, but it remains scattered, hard to find, and even harder to assemble holistically.

But all these people engaged in power structure research share a common piece of wisdom: if you want to understand power, either to shift it or to attain it, you have to scrutinize the underlying relationships between powerful people. Combine this principle with another from the internet age — linked data is far more valuable than lonely data — and LittleSis is born.

LittleSis is an endeavor to take all the great power structure research already being done, organize it, clarify it, and connect it so that grassroots efforts that challenge the powers that be will have a big and detailed map of the terrain they must navigate, and proper tools for adding to it as they move forward.

(You know this already, but I’ll say it anyway:) We really, really need grassroots efforts challenging the powers that be to grow and win.

The crises we all have to reckon with are urgent because if left alone, they will get worse by orders of magnitude very quickly. The economy is contracting very sharply and soon may reach levels of unemployment we’ve never experienced in combination with the weak safety net and deep indebtedness that currently exist. Our government has spent over a trillion dollars transforming an oil dictatorship into a wasteland, and is spending trillions more pumping water out of the financial Titanic. And speaking of rough seas, at some point soon the earth might begin a runaway warming, and everything will drown.

Our official leaders (and the relatively small fraction of the world they draw support, advice, pressure, and guidance from) have not only steered our society in the wrong direction, they’ve completely crashed it in the process. As if this weren’t bad enough, recently it’s become ordinary for them to then to be placed (or remain) in charge of spending 1,000,000,000,000s of dollars on a solution.

A new administration is a step in the right direction, but a step that’s been taken many times before with little progress. New administrations are needed, but not enough, to prevent these crises from entering uncharted territories of bad news. The steering wheels are being held by many of the same hands, which means powerful people aren’t learning from their big mistakes. Our leaders have been given enormous space to fail and fail, usually without even minimal consequences for them. In other words, there is a staggering lack of accountability.

It is precisely in these conditions that grassroots efforts have to step in and turn up the heat on corruption, injustice, waste, and deception. Chronically failing leaders who hide in walls of power need a wakeup call from an outraged citizenry. Good people within the system need extra pressure and encouragement to wield their power in behalf of the changes they want to see but are told to forget.

Building simple tools where once they were lacking can go a long way toward making accountability efforts of all sizes more effective. I think LittleSis can do that. It organizes existing information to help everyone identify the culprits, watch what they’re up to, and effectively plot to challenge them. If people think that’s a good idea, they will participate, and it will do its job well.

Kevin Connor (LittleSis co-founder) and I thought it was a good idea several years ago when we were doing some research with a group called HarvardWatch. One of its focuses was the Harvard Corporation, the secretive university board composed of seven high-flying names from business, government, and academia. This board played a large part in blocking many progressive changes to school policy we worked hard to organize support for while attending Harvard.

As with many university boards, the closer you look at the Harvard Corporation, the worse it looks. In 2002 HarvardWatch brought needed attention to deep ties between the Harvard board and Enron, and energy deregulation in general. Realizing it could use its place within America’s most mythologized elite school to shine a light on some elite abuse of power, HarvardWatch put out another report later that year detailing ways that Harvard had propped up George W Bush’s failing oil company in 1980s, including off-the-books partnerships similar to those employed by Enron. (No joke.) A senior member of Harvard’s board at the time, Robert Stone, is a longtime friend of the Bush family, so go figure.

In 2004 Kevin and I began lamenting the lack of good software for conducting and sharing the research we were collecting about those networks. Text documents and spreadsheets just weren’t doing it for us. Wikis were starting to find use everywhere (SourceWatch is a site that began employing a wiki effectively for corporate research in 2003), but didn’t seem structured appropriately for modeling social networks.

So we thought about writing some software to fill this void. And while we’re at it, why not make it a public website for others like us to also use and add to? And why not populate it automatically with corporate board rosters extracted from SEC filings? And why not pull in bulk databases of political contributions and include that too? And government contracts! And lobbying records!

We had some experience with web development and information design, and a DIY spirit, and so the undertaking began in a highly extracurricular fashion in 2005. We spent years thinking about it, toying with many ideas, and little by little learning the skills we needed to execute it well. We finally began devoting ourselves to it for real in late 2007, assembled an organization to back it, received a grant from the Sunlight Foundation in June 2008, and built the current beta site from “scratch” with the help of another developer — Eddie Tejeda — in the half year since then.

So far I’m very happy with the results, as is the rest of the LittleSis team. I hope you’ll try it out and tell me what you think. I hope you’ll pass it along to all your friends who take down corporate criminals and run for local office and organize people and fight back with pen-swords.