News from the NTEN Connect Blog

Data Shines Its Light on the Political Process: An Interview with Dan Newman, MAPLight.org

Submitted by Brett on Mon, 06/25/2007 - 11:34am

Briefly, what is MAPLight.org?

MAPLight.org is a groundbreaking web site that brings together all campaign contributions given to legislators with how every legislator votes on a given bill. We illuminate the connections between money and politics, providing unprecedented information to enable advocacy groups and citizens to hold legislators accountable. The “MAP” in MAPLight.org stands for “Money And Politics.” For a 6-minute overview of the site, see our Video Tour.

Where did the idea that became MAPLight.org originate?

As a political volunteer, I was frustrated with the uphill battle that issue-oriented nonprofits and community groups fight against big-money special-interests. I saw the tremendous influence of campaign contributions on government, but when I explained these connections to others who did not yet see them, the examples were not good enough and there was too much hand-waving. I decided to build a website that illuminates the specific connections between campaign money and the specific issues people care about.

The Problem with Data

Submitted by Brett on Mon, 06/25/2007 - 11:22am
Troy Anderson, Dataplace

Data doesn't kill people, people kill people. And yet, more lives are affected by data than guns: data determines how many Congress people represent you (unless you live in DC) and often how much money your state gets; data is one of the primary things (some say the only thing) that determines your mortgage interest rate; and data is often the last refuge of a specious argument.

With data so important these days, you'd better have some or you'll get left out, competed away, or find yourself unable to prove anything to anyone. Miss providing data and you'll miss out on money or opportunities for you, your organization, or your community.

The problem with data, as it currently exists in federal agencies and web sites, is that it's very difficult to use despite being very relevant, down to a neighborhood level. Interviewing people who try to make use of this data is sobering: "We used to spend a thousand hours a year processing HMDA data for our local community." "We have to pay through the nose to get good neighborhood level reports on data that's otherwise 'free'." "Why can't free data be free?"

As part of the Fannie Mae Foundation, we used to get many grant requests for data analysis equipment or services and for thousand dollar neighborhood market reports. Yet, often, what grantees really needed was free use of free data. Enter DataPlace. DataPlace makes understanding community statistics easy with tools such as rankings, charts, histograms, and maps that use the free federal statistics presented through an easy-to-use interface.

Appalachian Voices Fights for the Mountains

Submitted by Brett on Mon, 06/25/2007 - 9:51am
Mary Anne Hitt, Appalachian Voices

Anyone who has ever flown in a small aircraft over southern West Virginia or eastern Kentucky to view mountaintop removal coal mining first-hand can never forget the experience of seeing the massive scale of destruction—mountain after mountain blown up and dumped into valleys as far as the eye can see. People working to stop mountaintop removal have long dreamed of flying thousands of people over the Appalachian coal fields, but the logistics of that endeavor proved daunting.

As an alternative, Appalachian Voices turned to Google Earth. In the past, we took reporters and decision-makers on day-long tours, first flying over the coal fields and then driving through coal field communities to hear first-hand accounts from local residents. Today, a good approximation of that tour is accessible to anyone with a computer, a high-speed internet connection, and Google Earth, extending the reach of Appalachian Voices by millions of people.

Follow the Money: Data for Your Cause

Submitted by Brett on Mon, 06/25/2007 - 9:47am
Edwin Bender, National Institute on Money in State Politics

From immigration legislation to energy and environmental reforms, campaign finance data can provide unadulterated insight into the strategies of the forces behind legislation and electoral strategies. The examples of how data can be used to educate the public on important public-policy issues are numerous:

  • During the 2005 election season in Virginia, Dominion—a Virginia-based energy company—and its subsidiary, Dominion Virginia Power, gave campaign contributions to lawmakers who would later vote on a critical energy re-regulation bill that the company helped author. Since 1999, the company gave $2.2 million to state-level politics. The giving peaked in 2005 when state politicians and parties received nearly $707,000. The legislation sought by the company passed.

Still Searching for the Holy Grail of Data Integration

Submitted by Brett on Mon, 06/25/2007 - 9:24am
Michelle Murrain, The Nonprofit Open Source Initiative

Like many consultants, I deal with different kinds of data every day. These can be divided into four different types: data that needs analysis (income and expenses or web site hits, for example), data that is actionable (e-mail, to do lists, phone messages), data that needs to be accessible in a moment (client phone numbers, web site passwords), and data that can sit untouched until I need to find it.

Between my multiple computers, and my penchant for Web 2.0 applications, I have an unfortunate multiplicity of data locations, which I usually manage to back up, when I remember they exist. Of course, just about every single data type has its own interface: my address book holds addresses, a web application holds project management data, my hard drive is full of documents, and of course, my e-mail client is full of unanswered email.

I’m a science fiction fan. Science fiction lets us wish for all sorts of wonderful things. I remember a story where the protagonist had been out chasing aliens. He comes home, and a dulcet voice says something like, “You have 15 new messages. 10 are from colleagues, 3 are solicitations for products you are likely to be interested in, and 2 are from your mother. Which would you like to hear first?”

Things We Like

Submitted by Brett on Mon, 06/25/2007 - 9:07am

A monthly roundup of our favorite nonprofit tech resources.

1) Reactee's cotton-based text messaging platform. Wear your message, receive responses from strangers. This is so cool, we've signed up ourselves.

2) Swivel. So much data. Aren't you curious?

3) Marshall Kirkpatrick. Check out his latest tools and tips in our blog.

4) The Community Media Review. Read their new issue on Web 2.0. Then read their back issues.

5) Predictions of the Year 2000 from the Ladies' Home Journal in 1900. Hilarious, and at times, eerily prescient.  And who wouldn't want a strawberry the size of an apple?

6) The Buzz Monitor. Developed by the World Bank in collaboration with Development Seed (NTEN's Drupal developers) and the World Resources Institute to monitor what people were saying about the World Bank, Buzz Monitor lets you aggregate information on any topic, in multiple languages.

Community Buzz

Submitted by Brett on Mon, 06/25/2007 - 9:03am
News and buzz from people and organizations in the nonprofit tech sector.

DIGITAL STORYTELLERS UNITE

> Stories for Change is the place to find people who are telling their stories digitally. You can read inspiring stories about social change, find resources to help get your story out there, and trade tips with other online storytellers.

> Amnesty International is using satellite images to tell the story of the crisis in Darfur. They've created the Eyes on Darfur web site to document atrocities in areas that watchdogs don't have access to, bringing the story out into the open to catalyze action.

EVERYTHING YOU EVER WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT BOSTON

> MAPC, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, has collected town, city, county, state, national (census and other), private, educational, police and other data referencing the Boston region and created the Metro DataCommon. You can find everything from high school dropout rates to transit times in the Boston area. It's a great example of the power that integrated data can lend your story.

CALLING ALL CODERS

> Code For Change is building a community of people who want to put their programming skills to work on open source software that will change the world in a "get your hands dirty and move mountains kind of way". Their first release: a stand alone CiviCRM.

> For all of you out there working on software for social change, don't forget that the deadline for the $10,000 Antonio Pizzigati Prize For Software in the Public Interest is coming up on August 1st. For more information see our blog post.

Online Civics Lessons Disguised as Games

Submitted by Brett on Thu, 06/21/2007 - 2:03pm
You don't have to scour Ebay, hoping to spend real money on a character, to enjoy online Role Play Games. Harkening back to the days of the Oregon Trail, a new generation of game designers is hoping to entertain and educate at the same time.

Nokia and Vodafone Launch New Wiki Site on Mobiles for Change

Submitted by KatrinVerclas on Wed, 06/20/2007 - 6:28am

Nokia and Vodafone have launched a new wiki, Share Ideas, designed to help distribute ideas about how mobile phones can be used in civil society.

We here at NTEN and MobileActive.org are pleased to have played a small part in the process of creating the site, bringing people and ideas from the MobileActive.org network to the table. We are thrilled that after two years of hard work, there is increasing recognition and knowledge about how critical mobile phones are as a tool for social change and how important it is for civil society organizations to share ideas and resources.

Please check it out!

From the Affinity Groups: Spiffy Software for Online Dialogue Exchange

Submitted by Visitor on Tue, 06/19/2007 - 3:04pm
The NTEN Affinity Groups are great sounding boards for folks looking for technology recommendations. Our NTEN Discuss Email Archive members recently investigated the tools and software packages that can aid in online web-conferencing and conversation.