‘Hacking’ Financial Disclosure Data for a Clearer Look at Money in California Politics

Who’s giving gifts to which politicians?  In California, it can sometimes take a while to figure out the answer to that question.

Who's giving gifts to California judges? Click on the image to find out.
Who’s giving gifts to California judges? Click on the image to find out.

The state has tough disclosure laws — some of the strictest in the nation.  But  officials’ financial information — such as their outside business interests, stock holdings and the gifts they’re receiving — is buried in hard-to-find documents called Form 700s. If a voter is trying to see if one company gave gifts to several politicians, or if several officials hold stock in the same company, he or she needs to go through form after form.

Listen to the accompanying California Report story here

“Most voters don’t have the time to be able to do that,” Fair Political Practices Commission Chair Ann Ravel told KQED. “If data is available but it’s not easy to access, then it’s not of benefit to people, and it’s hard for them to get the information they need to make thoughtful decisions.”

An innovative project sponsored by the FPPC and Code For America offers a window into what a more accessible system would look like. Competing in a “hackathon” sponsored by the two organizations last fall, a team of coders built an app visualizing which donors gave money to California judges in 2011. Instead of rifling through hundreds of PDF documents, voters could instead look at a graphic of interconnected donors and public officials.

Financial Forms Locked In PDF Format

The hackers were able to manipulate the financial data into a visual graphic because the FPPC had paid a company called Captricity to convert and digitize a year’s worth of financial information on California’s judges. The goal was to use the data as a test case to show what a more accessible disclosure system could look like.

The company transformed all the PDF files into a large downloadable spreadsheet listing every judge’s financial information. That straightforward step matters, explained Cathryn Posey, because “if [data] on a PDF, if it’s on paper, it’s much harder for people to see it or get access to it.  If I can digitize it, if I can get it into a spreadsheet, then I can get it online, and suddenly lots of people can come and view it. It can also make it sortable. I can start to look at relationships.”

Posey is a member of  a six-person team, OpenJudge, that won last year’s hackathon, where the FPPC and Code For America invited tech-savvy people to spend a weekend working with information to see what kind of apps they could come up with.

Red Dots And Blue Dots

Renee DiResta (l), Cathryn Posey (c) and Kaming Li (r) of the OpenJudge hackathon team. (Scott Detrow/KQED)
Renee DiResta (l), Cathryn Posey (c) and Kaming Li (r) of the OpenJudge hackathon team. (Scott Detrow/KQED)

Sitting in a meeting room at Code For America’s San Francisco headquarters, Posey and two other members of her hackathon team showed me the app they created.  “When they say a picture tells a thousand words, [that’s true] especially when we’re dealing with data. Large sets of data, people kind of go blind,” Posey said.

So, focusing on the gifts information, the team of hackers made a big interactive picture, visualizing what California judges were receiving from which donors. Renee DiResta walked me through the visualization, which you can view here.

“Red dots are judges, and blue dots are donors,” she said.  “In the case where there’s a red dot in the middle with a lot of blue dots pointing to it, that’s a situation where one judge received a lot of gifts from many different donors.”

Some judges and donors create a spider web of connections to each other. A user can hold a mouse over a dot and see the name of the judge or the donor. DiResta said the goal is to make this information accessible and understandable. “Your brain responds to this,” she said. “It can immediately grasp what’s going on in a way it simply can’t when looking at the data presented in list form.”

Creating An Accessible System

FPPC chair Ann Ravel was blown away by the team’s results. “It was amazing to see what people did on their own time,” she said.

The hackathon was the first step of a broader goal. Ravel wants to take all of the Form 700 data and digitize it, so that people can search, map and visualize financial information for legislators, for the governor and for other statewide officials.

Of course that costs money. “We’re looking at a number of avenues” to fund the expansion, Ravel said. “One of them is through the budget process. And one of them is through foundations.”

Ravel is hoping to get the data converted and visualized by the end of next year, so that voters don’t have to dig up form after form after form to find the information they’re looking for. The next step after that: doing the same thing with campaign contribution data.

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