Profiling the powers that be on the un-facebook

(Originally written and posted at www.wikinomics.com)

While doing some research on government transparency, I came across a new website called LittleSis.
LittleSis (currently in Beta version) is a new initiative from the Sunlight Foundation (est. 2006), online catalyst for political transparency and accountability in government (Anthony Williams wrote about them last month).  Sunlight’s previous platforms include OpenCongress.org and FedSpending.org.

littlesis

LittleSis mixes Facebook-ish user interface with Wikipedia-like user editing to create profiles of the “powers that be” in both the private and public sectors.  Users who register as analysts can log in and add information to profiles of major figures like Barack Obama, Robert Rubin or Bill Gates.  The site focuses on 3 main factors about an individual:  Relationships (which includes Business/Government positions, other memberships, education and donation/grant recipients), Interlocks (people in common organizations), Giving (who they’ve donated to, as well as other individuals that have given to the same recipients) and the basic personal information.

Like Facebook, LittleSis also includes groups.  When I look up Citi Group, I can see their leadership and staff, but I also get a look at people and organizations that Citi has done businesses with. My favorite group feature is the “targets of lobbying”, where I learn that from ’99-’08, they lobbied the Senate and House 19 times.  They also lobbied the Department of Education 7 times between ’04 and ’07 (why would that be?)  If I go to the Department of Education group, I can follow up and see who they’ve done business with, who’s lobbied them, and which organizations have leadership and staff in common with the Department.  I can also check out which organizations have received donations from people who work in the Department.

The key to LittleSis is that it’s not Barack Obama, Citi Group or the Department of Education controlling their own profile and network.  Analysts like myself (I signed up for an account) are the ones doing the writing and editing, much like Wikipedia.  LittleSis also has a metric for determining which Analysts score the most points for making edits – a good system to (hopefully) maintain the integrity of the site.

At this point, there are a few shortcomings to LittleSis.  As I mentioned, the site is still in a Beta version, so it’s not a completed project yet.  Also, you can certainly question the accuracy of the information, and more importantly, the completeness of it.  I can read that a major CEO donated to groups x, y and z, but he may also have donated to a, b and c, with that information not yet uploaded.  As with Wikipedia, I think that a major prerequisite to a complete and successful version of LittleSis will be achieving a critical mass of users to police information and ensure the completeness of it.

Regardless of this shortcoming, I see a lot of potential in LittleSis.  Having this kind of facebook-like platform to follow donations and relationships among America’s elite is a fantastic development for public and private transparency.  Previously, we had to rely on journalists to follow the string and inform us about these relationships.  This website, if successful, allows individual citizens to see this themselves in a platform that’s very similar to the facebook sites they’re so adept at navigating.

The Sunlight Foundation is on the right track – let’s hope that LittleSis gets a strong enough user base to reach its potential.

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