Supercharging Transparency Mapping

LittleSis, OpenCorporates, and Poderopedia are network mapping sites that document the non-democratic exercise of power in democratic societies--the opaque deals, revolving doors, lobbying, and flows of money that routinely shape political outcomes. The proliferation of these efforts has begun to highlight an underlying limitation: the projects don’t connect. There are no metadata or API standards for these sites, no sharing of visualization tools, and few tools that can help other communities, such as journalists and researchers, leverage these datasets for their work. ‘Supercharging Transparency Mapping’ is an effort by these groups to take the next step in making mapping a more powerful collaborative enterprise: one that can share data

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There are many tools for building communities and democratizing speech on the Internet.  These are the capacities we often associate with the democratic potential of the Internet.  

There are far fewer tools that improve our capacity to limit undemocratic power in democratic societies--the opaque deals, revolving doors, lobbying, and flows of money that routinely shape political outcomes.  

Transparency advocates and investigative journalists have begun to use network mapping tools to document and analyze these forms of power.  LittleSis and Muckety in the US, OpenCorporates for corporate data, for European Union institutions, the Poderopedia in Chile, and numerous smaller efforts have built databases that map the power structures of modern societies, from corporate ownership to public contracting to family and social connections.  Some of these projects are now large and relatively mature, with entries numbering in the 100,000s or millions and lengthy track records of supporting accountability journalism.  Other toolsets have begun to emerge to lower the costs for start-up efforts ( PopIt, UK; Kumu, US).  Collectively these sites create, as Littlesis' puts it, “an involuntary Facebook for the powerful.”  

Such parallel innovation is the sign of a good and persistent idea.  But so far we have not been able to take advantage of each others expertise and data gathering to boost transparency, accountability and corporate information mapping.  There are no metadata or API standards for these sites, no sharing of analytical or visualization tools, and few tools that can help other communities, such as journalists and researchers, leverage these growing datasets for their work.  There is no community, as such, and transversal efforts (e.g., PopIt) are nascent and focused on small-scale projects: the start-ups and one-offs.  

So where do these projects go from here?  Our answer is that they begin to interconnect.  They develop standards for sharing data and common tools for analyzing them.  They develop tools that can narrow the analytical lens around subsets of their data, and more easily transition from one level of analysis to another.  They develop tools that allow labor-intensive small projects to feed larger projects and also leverage the work done by those projects.  

This project brings together three of the major mapping initiatives (and several other organizations involved in tool building and transparency efforts) to propose a two-year effort to begin these next steps.  One of these, the Poderopedia, was built with a News Challenge grant in 2011.

The cornerstone of this project is the development of an open, abstracted API that can facilitate sharing among partner sites and with third-party applications.  At a basic level, the API will address the proliferation of schemas currently in use for people, organizations, relationships and other common features of network-mapping databases.  Over time, it will help consolidate those schemas.   With that cornerstone in place, a wide variety of collective projects and toolsets become possible.  In this project we would focus on two:

An open-source visualization toolset customized to work with the API.  These would borrow and adapt from D3, Exhibit, and other open source visualization libraries.  The relatively common hub-spoke diagrams barely scratch the potential for representing and exploiting the data in complex databases like LittleSis or Poderopedia.  Several of the partners have begun to explore this terrain, but efforts to date have been fragmented and single-purposed.

Improved tools for allowing researchers and journalists to tell stories with data from one or more of the networks, including importation of the analysis tools and visualizations into their own platforms.  Here the focus will be on (1) facilitating customized, filtered views of large datasets that can support focused storytelling and (2) the integration of those outputs into widely-used content management systems (Wordpress, Drupal, etc.). For reference, has an attractive (but closed-source and commercial) approach to integrating narrative and annotation tools with and hub-spoke diagrams.  

In the two-year period of this grant, we will complete 1 and 2 and make as much progress as possible on 3.  The API design process will also provide an opportunity to discuss solutions to other challenges facing the community: migration paths to better web platforms and technologies (an inevitability given the fast pace of web development); easier transfers of data if sites shut down; and the challenge of both enabling and capturing the small-scale, labor-intensive network maps built by groups for narrower or one-off purposes.  A well-designed API--built and adopted by a coalition of groups--would facilitate solutions to these issues.  The accumulation on visualizations, analytical tools, and cross platform tools, in turn, would create strong incentives for other groups to adopt the API.

The project includes the principals of several of the major established projects in this area, including Littlesis, Poderopedia, and OpenCorporates.  It has the further support of Poplus, the civic coding initiative connected with Popit.  Poderopedia is a previous Knight News Challenge winner.  Several other mapping organizations have also expressed interest: all of these efforts face the same problems.   The American Assembly--a public-policy institute based at Columbia University--will act as the neutral-ground convener and project manager for the partnership.  Technical project management and coding will be done within the network where possible, and by bringing in outside support where needed.

In ONE sentence, tell us about your project to strengthen the Internet for free expression and innovation.

Collective efforts to hold secret power accountable are necessary to preserve politically meaningful freedom of expression.

Who will benefit from what you propose? What have you observed that makes you think that?

The immediate beneficiaries are the transparency organizations at the center of this project--Littlesis, Poderopedia, and OpenCorporates--who will be able to pool efforts to address some of the longstanding challenges of network mapping websites. The wider network of beneficiaries includes other mapping initiatives and civil society transparency groups more generally, which we will engage in part through the Poplus civic coding initiative. The most important beneficiaries are the journalists and researchers who work to document abuses of power and conflicts of interest. These will gain better tools for understanding power relationships in our increasingly complex networked society.

What progress have you made so far?

The three primary partners are established, large-scale network mapping initiatives. Each has undertaken some independent work on data visualization. Poderopedia is unique in the group in trying to ‘widgitize’ its important features for Wordpress. No cross-platform solutions exist. Nor has there has been an effort to build a common API.

What would be a successful outcome for your idea or project?

A successful API would be demonstrated through the deployment of common visualization, query, or narrative integration tools across more than one of the partner sites (or third party sites). The larger goal is to put network mapping on a more dynamic, accessible footing than is currently the case, and to see these solutions taken up by a wider range of journalists and researchers outside the transparency mapping community.

Who is on your team, and what are their relevant experiences or skills?

Kevin Connor, LittleSis. Kevin Connor is the co-founder of (the opposite of "Big Brother"), a free database of information on who-knows-who at the heights of business and government. LittleSis, which is edited by a community of researchers, currently tracks the connections of over 100,000 people and 30,000 organizations in the US. The site is a project of the nonprofit Public Accountability Initiative, a watchdog research organization focused on corporate and government accountability. Connor directs PAI's research initiatives, which have exposed significant conflicts of interest, undue influence, and corruption and garnered major media coverage.

Miguel Paz, Poderopedia. Miguel Paz is a chilean journalist and founder and CEO of Poderopedia, a data journalism website created through a 2011 Knight News Challenge grant. Poderopedia reveals the links among business and political elites in Chile, and soon in Venezuela and Colombia. It also provides it software for projects like the Election Mapping website in Panama. Paz is also the president of Poderomedia Foundation, an organization that promotes the use of new technologies to rethink Journalism, develop news applications, teach new skills to journalists and foster a disruptive innovation culture within the news and information ecosystem in Latin America. Paz is the co-creator of the Hacks/Hackers chapter in Santiago, the co-founder of and a 2012 Start-Up Chile winner. Due to his work, in 2013 he was granted a Knight Fellowship by the International Center for Journalists so he could keep focusing on this projects and help journalists and organizations to rethink the way to do sustainable quality journalism and build the next generation of news startups. He is the former deputy director of, the first digital-only newspaper in Chile. With over 16 years of experience as a awarded investigative journalist, teacher and digital strategist, his work has been published in two books featuring the best Chilean investigative journalism, and he is invited often to organize and speak at journalism and technology events around the world, with a focus on hands on training and community building.

Chris Taggart, OpenCorporates. Chris Taggart is the Co-founder and CEO of OpenCorporates, the largest open database of companies in the world. Praised by EU Vice-President Neelie Kroes as “the kind of resource the (Digital) Single Market needs”, OpenCorporates is revolutionising access to and reuse of company data, making it not just freely available on the web, but giving access to the underlying data through its API and with a licence that allows free reuse, even commercially. Since its launch in December 2010, OpenCorporates has grown from 3 million companies in 3 jurisdictions to over 60 million in 80 jurisdictions. Chris Taggart was originally a magazine journalist and publisher, and is an experienced and successful entrepreneur, having started and grown several successful companies. He has been working exclusively in the field of open government and public sector information since 2009. He is a Nominee for the Board of Directors of the Global Legal Entity Identifier Foundation, and is an active member of the open data and open PSI communities, and advisor to governments and NGOs on open data, reuse of public sector information and corporate data.

Felipe Heusser, Ciudadano Inteligente. Founder and Director of Fundación Ciudadano Inteligente, a Latin American NGO based in Chile that uses information technology to promote transparency and active citizen participation. He graduated as a Lawyer from the P. Universidad Católica (Chile) and holds a Master degree in Public Policy from the London School of Economics (UK), where he is also a PhD Candidate in Government with research in the field of Freedom of Information, Regulation, and Internet Technology. Felipe is also an Ashoka Fellow for the News and Knowledge program, and achieves work experience in both the Chilean NGO and Government sectors, working for Un Techo para Chile, and both Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Labour. In 2010, he organized the first Personal Democracy Forum for Latin America, and currently coordinates the Open Data research project for Latin America in collaboration with IDRC, ECLAC (UN) and W3C.

Joe Karaganis, The American Assembly. Karaganis directs projects on digital culture and information policy at the American Assembly, a public policy institute at Columbia University. He has worked on several network mapping projects, including the (now defunct) ‘Research Hub’ system built and deployed at the Social Science Research Council and more recent efforts to map participation in trade agreements. He has also written about and advocated for open data requirements for rulemaking at the FCC and USTR and has worked to establish transparent norms for academic licensing of commercial media and communications datasets.


Home locations of the main partners:

Littlesis, Buffalo, USA
Poderopedia, Santiago, Chile
OpenCorporates, London, UK
American Assembly, New York, USA


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