It’s been a busy year for LittleSis.org and the Public Accountability Initiative (PAI, the non-profit behind LittleSis). Below are some highlights from our first full year in business, ranging from the development of new expert editing tools to the release of high-impact investigative research reports.
But first, a note about a strategic shift for PAI and LittleSis.org in 2010. PAI developed LittleSis in order to arm journalists, activists, and watchdog researchers with a new tool for monitoring and researching power centers. This year, we began using LittleSis to engage in more of this research ourselves, programmatically and in partnership with organizations seeking to hold large and powerful institutions accountable. This research has garnered major headlines, has had real and lasting public policy impact, and has further demonstrated LittleSis.org’s usefulness as a tool for power analysis and investigative research. Expect to see this research program expand in 2011 and integrate further with LittleSis and user groups such as this one.
Without further ado, some highlights from the year in LittleSis (& PAI):
Expert analysts get rakes and shovels. Entering data piece by piece on LittleSis can be a bit tedious, between reference requirements, the relationship taxonomy, the sheer number of forms, and so on. In the course of 2010, we developed several expert tools that make the editing process go much faster. Think of it this way: instead of picking up a yard full of leaves (a driveway full of snow?) with their bare hands, expert analysts can now use rakes and shovels. These tools were developed throughout the year, and will be made more widely available in 2011.
LittleSis expands beyond (and within) the US. LittleSis was initially designed to track the American power elite. Soon after launching we began to receive inquiries from people (some highly critical of our Amerocentric approach) eager to track the power elite within other geographic domains, everywhere from South Korea to Boston, MA. So in 2010 we developed the capacity for LittleSis to track entities within specific networks. Right now, there are only three: the US, the UK, and Buffalo (PAI’s home base). A team of developers in the UK contributed code to help get the international effort off the ground. In Buffalo, we’ve begun hosting editing parties where a group of watchdogs get together to map the local elite. These efforts are only just beginning — expect to see more in 2011.
The database grows by leaps and bounds. LittleSis added 22,000 entities and 75,000 relationships over the course of the year with the help of 200 analysts. We added hundreds of boards and lists, including, for instance, this list of White House visitors. We developed scripts to add and update leadership data on any publicly-traded company at any time by scraping their most recent SEC filings, and we used them to update pre-existing corporate data.
Collaborative investigations put fat cats in the hot seat. LittleSis served as a platform for many collaborative “people’s” investigations, though one sticks out: our joint effort with the Alternet community to shed light on a class of American super-rich that we deemed the “bubble barons” — billionaires who enjoyed exponential increases in personal wealth during the bubble years. Several hundred new analysts signed up for the project. One interesting discovery: an Environmental Defense Fund board member was a large shareholder in Massey Energy — the coal company behind April’s deadly explosion. Read the full project wrap-up here.
Obama’s debt commission gets a close look. We drew the clear connection between Obama’s appointments to the debt commission and his intentions for Social Security in this piece, published on AlterNet and still an authoritative account on the topic. The commission released a report in early December consistent with its makeup and history, focusing on cutting social security payments that have little to do with the deficit while ignoring the role of wars and financial fraud.
Three reports shed light on Wall Street’s dirty work. PAI produced three major reports on Wall Street in partnership with the Campaign for America’s Future and National People’s Action that garnered national headlines in publications ranging from the LA Times to the Washington Post. The reports detailed how big banks finance predatory payday lending; the student loan industry’s friends in the Senate; and the massive lobbying army Wall Street was putting to work in fighting financial reform. Expect more in 2011.
Report exposes Bass Pro’s record of taxpayer-subsidized failure. In June we produced a report on retail store Bass Pro’s record as a heavily-subsidized development anchor that garnered headlines in cities across the country, from Buffalo, NY to Memphis, TN. The report identified hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies to the firm and a consistent failure to live up to (rather absurd) promises the company made when securing these public dollars (for instance: Bass Pro is a bigger tourist attraction than Major League baseball). Our report had real impact, contributing to the demise of a Bass Pro store in our home base of Buffalo that was supposed to receive upwards of $100 million in subsidies.
Research reveals the power structure behind poverty. Towards the end of the year, PAI began partnering with several grassroots organizations to research institutions that perpetuate poverty in the Buffalo area. These partnerships grew in part out of our efforts to expand LittleSis to track local power elites, and they will hopefully serve as a template for future partnerships with other grassroots, people-powered organizations seeking to hold power accountable. Our topics of investigation include high energy costs faced by poor communities in the area and wasteful spending in the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program. Expect to see more on this front in the new year.
A special thanks to the LittleSis analysts; to all of our partners during the past year, especially AlterNet, the Campaign for America’s Future, National People’s Action, ShiftSpace, and PUSH Buffalo; and to the foundations that supported this work in the past year: the Sunlight Foundation, the Sociological Initiatives Foundation, the Elbaz Family Foundation, the Harnisch Foundation, and Arca Foundation.
We’re looking forward to an excellent 2011!