Yesterday’s launch of WhoRunsGov, a Washington Post site, marks an interesting development in the history of the transparency movement: it is a groundbreaking attempt by mainstream media to shed light on influential social networks through crowdsourcing and data aggregation.
From the site:
WhoRunsGov.com offers a unique look at the world of Washington through its key players and personalities. It’s your window into how deals get made and policy is shaped in the new Obama administration that is remaking the nation’s capital.
You can browse profiles of rainmakers, look at lists of their key associates (on the lower right), and follow links to other sources of data on their voting records, personal finances, and campaign finances. A team of staff editors controls the content on the site, but users with no Post affiliation will eventually be able to submit edits for review.
We are excited about this, because corporate America is on board with an approach to political data that has more traditionally been the purview of not-for-profit groups and small media firms. And imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
Not only that, but one of the largest media companies in the country is turning more eyes on the networks that shape policy in this country, and that’s a great thing.
It’s important to note that this site comes in the context of a movement for greater transparency – with significant leadership from the Sunlight Foundation (major funder of LittleSis/Public Accountability Initiative) – that has given rise to sites like Congresspedia, OpenCongress, Sourcewatch, They Rule, Muckety, NNDB, Watchdog.net, GovTrack.us, now LittleSis, and many more, all of which, in one way or another, crowdsource transparency when it comes to elite individuals and networks.
We’re looking forward to the momentum WRG will help generate for the movement. But we do think that similar sites have some critical advantages over the Post, mainly when it comes to offering a broader look at elite networks, encouraging a spirit of collaboration & openness, and deploying advanced technical features.
For instance, asking the question of “Who Runs Government?” without including lobbyists or private sector players is problematic. President Obama has taken laudable steps to keep former government officials from lobbying the executive branch, but the Post is still going to have to deal with the reality of the revolving door and the ways in which it shapes Washington power circles and policymaking.
WRG’s terms are also extremely restrictive. It seems somewhat contradictory to offer a guide to key leaders in Washington, encourage users to contribute information and edits, and then claim full ownership of the data on the site, thereby forbidding many forms of productive use. This is, however, what the Post is doing:
5. (a) Except for content you have posted on the Site, or unless expressly authorized by us, you may not copy, reproduce, distribute, publish, enter into a database, display, perform, modify, create derivative works based on, transmit, or in any way exploit any part of this Site…
This is not the spirit of Web 2.0 or the transparency movement, and we hope that the site changes its terms, following the lead of other wikis that scrutinize leadership: Congresspedia, Sourcewatch, LittleSis, and so on.
Finally, the Post has the capital and resources to offer some superior technical features on the site, including visualizations and mapping (a la TheyRule, NNDB, Muckety – and LittleSis, in the near future), browser plugins, and dynamic news content parsing. We don’t see any of this currently.
ReadWriteWeb reviewed the site yesterday and had this to say, in comparing WRG to political data sites (including LittleSis, OpenCongress, the New York Times, Memeorandum Colors, and the UK Guardian’s Free Our Data) that are “doing it better”:
Compared to those kinds of initiatives, WhoRunsGov looks a bit boring so far. There’s a lot of potential though, and we hope to see the Washington Post’s new initiative develop with more impact than it had when it came out of the gate.
We’re also looking forward to further developments, and are interested to see where WaPo goes with this.