Saturday, June 30, 2007

Insanely Useful Websites

It is Saturday, raining, and all the Congress Critters have gone home for the 4th of July. At the risk of stepping on two outstanding posts, one by Apollo 13 and the other by Manifesto Joe, I think it is time for another lesson in the tools of citizen journalism.

In today's installment we will explore what the Sunlight Foundation has termed it's Insanely Useful Websites. They are Websites that "provide a broad range of information available to track government and legislative information, campaign contributions and the role of money in politics." I have used many of them. A couple are still works in progress, but most are really first rate. All are trying to provide citizen journalists information we can use. Most are grantees of the Sunlight Foundation which seems to have a hand in many of the transparency in government initiatives.

Here is the list with the Sunlight Foundation's description (in some cases edited slightly and in other cases more than slightly edited):

* Congresspedia – a project of the Sunlight Foundation and the Center for Media & Democracy – is an online wiki-based citizens’ encyclopedia on Congress hosted on the Center for Media & Democracy’s SourceWatch wiki. This resource includes individual pages for every member of Congress, as well as information on congressional committees, specific legislative topic areas, congressional rules and practices and individual bills. As a wiki, its content can be drafted and edited by anyone, but it is overseen by an editor to insure fairness and accuracy. It is a great place to go if you want to know what is happening right now.

* DOJ TrainingDB - The DOJ Documents search engine – a project created by users of Daily Kos – provides a search function for the massive number of e-mails released by the Department of Justice to the House Committee on the Judiciary in response to the recent firings of U.S. Attorneys. The e-mails, previously only available in a large PDF file, are presented in text format and are searchable by name. Each page of each released document has been scanned and turned into a text (.txt) file - there are over 9,000 such files. The user can also designate whether they want to see e-mails that are “From,” “To,” or “CC.” This is where you go if you want to research the mad cap adventures of Monica, Kyle, and their friends.

* FedSpending a project of OMB Watch – combines data from the Federal Procurement Data System and the Federal Assistance Award Data System to create a free, searchable database of federal government contracting and spending. The database allows users to search contracts and grants by state, congressional district, contracting agency or type of award, and shows where the money is being spent and whether it was competitively bid.

* Follow the Money - The National Institute on Money in State Politics operates a searchable database of all campaign contributions to political campaigns at the state level. The database allows users to search for contributions to candidates for office at all levels of state government and for contributions spent on supporting and opposing ballot initiatives across all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The Institute has made available several APIs so programmers can access and display the Institute’s data in their own applications. If you want to find out who is funding your Governor's campaign, here is the place to start.

* Govtrack centralizes information on the legislative process into a Web site Users can search through member of Congress profiles, bills, votes, and committee action. Users can also create their own Congress-tracker by subscribing to email updates or by creating RSS feeds to keep informed on the latest developments related to bills, issues, members of Congress and committees. This site is the work of one very hard working graduate student.

* LOUIS - The Library of Unified Information Sources – a project of the Sunlight Foundation – is a search engine that combs through seven different sets of government documents. The seven sets of documents are Congressional Reports, the Congressional Record, Congressional Hearings, the Federal Register, Presidential Documents, GAO Reports, and Congressional Bills & Resolutions. The search engine allows users to search broadly for keywords or limit searches to a single document set or range of dates. LOUIS, which updates its document depository daily, even allows users to set up a “standing query” as an RSS feed, to get alerts every time Congress or the executive branch takes action that references the subject of the initial query.

I am a beta tester of LOUIS and have found it very helpful.

* MapLight provides a detailed analysis of legislation by tracking bills, the support and opposition bills garner from interest groups and the campaign contributions given by those interest groups to members of Congress and for the state of California. The site lets users tracks the day by day, vote by vote, impact of political contributions at the federal level. This analysis is based on databases available from the Center for Responsive Politics at and from official records of the Library of Congress via The resulting database of bills, voting records, and campaign contributions powers the search engine at and enables people to see the links between dollars spent and votes cast in Congress. The site allows users to search by bill, interest group or by legislators, and also allows similar searches of the California legislature and state Senate. Notice the emphasis on California. has a very good training video.

* Metavid is a project that captures, streams, archives and facilitates real-time collective remediation of federal legislative proceedings. Metavid opens up video source footage of House and Senate proceedings for permanent reusable online access, allowing citizens to remix, investigate, and track their representatives in a participant-driven open source archive. This particular site is more of a work in progress than one that is presently useful. It does show what is possible in the future.

* OpenCongress - a joint project of the Sunlight Foundation and the Participatory Politics Foundation – is an open-source, non-partisan, legislative Web resource that uses structured data scraped from THOMAS by to show legislative information – bills, committees, member profiles – in a more useable format. offers RSS feeds as an easy and convenient way to follow the latest news and blog mentions relating to a bill, a vote or a member of Congress. The site serves as a rich resource for political bloggers, issue-based membership groups, and individuals.

This site makes THOMAS user friendly. It is one of my favorite sources of information. I visit OpenCongress every morning.

* Open Community Document Review is a project of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) providing an online review process that enables people across the Internet to review, tag, comment on and rate the importance of government documents received by CREW through Freedom of Information Act requests.

I really haven't used this site yet, but think I might give it a try this weekend. You would be amazed at what a FOIA request can produce.

* OpenCRS is a project of the Center for Democracy & Technology. It aggregates Congressional Research Service reports (CRS reports) that have been released to the public by members of Congress in a searchable database for free public access. Since CRS reports are not typically available to the public, Open CRS encourages users to submit any acquired CRS reports for inclusion in its public database.

The other day one of our writers wanted some background on campaign finance law. I referred her to OpenCRS. She was amazed at the high quality of the reports researched and written by the Congressional Research Service. Although extensive, OpenCRS doesn't have a complete library, but it costs a lot less than either Lexis-Nexis or Westlaw.

* Open Hearings is a mini-site of schedules of current and future Senate committee hearings which includes links to live audio and video of hearings in progress. Users can subscribe to receive updates for all committees and hearings via RSS feed or iCalendar. The site also provides users the ability to import the "Live Hearing" view into a personalized Google homepage.

* Open Secrets A 2007 Webby Award winner, Open Secrets is a project of the Center for Responsive Politics. It is the premiere source of data on money in national politics. provides a searchable database for the campaign finance data of all federally elected politicians since 1989. The site contains individual campaign finance profiles of each member of Congress and each presidential candidate. The site relies on data compiled by the Federal Election Committee. The user is able to search by member of Congress, by donor, or by industry sector. The site also contains four separate databases: lobbying, personal financial disclosures, congressional travel and revolving door.

If you don't know about Open Secrets, you need to find out. This is the real deal if you want to follow the money.

The next four are Open Secrets "pages." You really need to link them separately.

* OS: Lobbyists This page collects information from lobbyist disclosure forms and provides it the user in a number of searchable ways dating back to 1998. Among many options the user can search by client name, lobbyist name, bill ID number, lobbying firms, and issue area. The site allows the user to search through lobbying firms, top lobbying contracts, individual lobbyists, and the top lobbying industries.

* OS: Revolving Door aggregates all information related to those leaving work on Capitol Hill to go to work on K Street and vice versa. The Center for Responsive Politics’ Revolving Door database tracks anyone whose résumé includes positions of influence in both the private and public sectors since 1998. Users can search for members of Congress and congressional staffers turned lobbyists by looking at the congressional offices and committees with the most people spinning through the revolving door. Top agencies, members, congressional committees, and organizations are all available search options.

* OS: Personal Financial Disclosure has information from the personal financial disclosures filed by every member of Congress and every executive branch official since 2005 and presents it all in a searchable format. The user can search through member’s net worth, stock holdings, assets, and outside income.

* OS: Travel is a search engine of aggregated privately sponsored congressional travel information compiled from reports filed by members of Congress with the House Legislative Resource Center and Senate Office of Public Records since 2005. Users can search by member, staff, sponsor, country, city and industry to see who is funding their travel. The site also provides maps showing where each individual member of Congress and their staff have traveled.

* Project Vote Smart provides detailed information – biographical information, campaign finances, interest groups ratings, issue positions, and public statements – on elected officials including the President, members of Congress, state officials and leadership in state legislatures.

* Taxpayers for Common Sense provides reports on pork barrel projects and earmarks in Congress analyzing bills in real-time and providing databases of information. Its mission is to reduce wasteful government spending.

* VoterWatch combines C-SPAN video of Congress with the accompanying text from the Congressional Record to allow viewers to search the video for comments made by a member of Congress. The site uses Web video and transcription synchronization technology to allow users to search for words or phrases uttered by members of Congress. The search function allows users to search by issue and by member of Congress. Lacking easy video capture the site isn't quite as good as it could be.

* WashingtonWatch determines the average cost, or savings, per individual of each bill introduced in Congress by performing calculations on government estimates compared to the US population. The Web site provides users with pro and con arguments for each bill, allows comments on each bill, allows users to vote “yes” or “no” on the bills and provides a “write your rep” function. WashingtonWatch also provides a wiki that allows users to add content to each bill.

Now you have nearly all the tools you need to Watch Those We Chose.