I recent discovered two fantastic websites that exemplify the power of online collectives to amass some great bodies of knowledge. LittleSis and Spot.us are experiments, and so it is unclear if they will succeed, but both deserve kudos for their imagination, resourcefulness and public spiritedness.
LittleSis, still in beta, describes its mission as “profiling the powers that be.” It is “an involuntary facebook of powerful Americans, collaboratively edited and maintained by people like you.” The site doesn’t just provide the usual “Who’s Who” biographical data about a person. It enumerates the key relationships that powerful people have with other powerful people and institutions. It identifies the other people who serve on the same corporate boards and institutions, and shows what charities and political candidates they give money to.
From the LittleSis homepage.
The information on LittleSis is all publicly available, but it is usually scattered around hundreds of different websites, books and documents. LittleSis is an ingenious attempt to pull all this data together on one site, so that the connections among the power elite can be made more visible.
As of today, the site claimed to have 305,165 data citations, mentions of 114,722 relationships and 16,119 addresses on 27,041 persons. LittleSis has date on 11,133 lobbyists, 8,373 organizations, 3,795 political fundraising committees, 3,055 businesses, 2,700 political candidates, 1,918 individual campaign committees and 1,740 elected Representatives. In addition, LittleSis has lists of prominent people such as Forbes magazine’s list of the 400 richest Americans, The Hill magazine’s “Top Hired Guns” and GQ’s “50 Most Powerful People in DC.”
All this, and the site is still in a beta release!
A few months ago, I wrote about how digital technologies are empowering people to undertake their own “sousveillance” of people in power. LittleSis is a creative new example of this phenomenon. Or as LittleSis puts it:
The site is an answer to Big Brother: citizens surveilling the country’s leadership in the interest of transparency, accountability, and the public good. No nefarious tactics, no trillion dollar budgets, just open, collaborative research with the purpose of turning the page on an era of failed leadership, cronyism, and corruption.
Ordinary Americans have never felt more shut out from all levels of government, more excluded from economic gains, and more powerless to remedy the problems facing their communities and the world. Meanwhile, the powerful networks of individuals who’ve enjoyed unprecedented influence, wealth, and access while steering our country towards its present crisis continue to elude responsibility in the public spotlight.
We all know that the need for fundamental change is urgent. Americans everywhere are pushing back against a broken system that bankrupts and disempowers them. But to effectively push back, we have to study and document the social networks that have our democracy in a stranglehold. We have to expose the individuals and institutions that abuse their power to enrich themselves and their cronies. And we have to make common cause and share this information freely.
LittleSis is an invitation for fed up citizens to do just that.
The other interesting website, Spot.us, is a brave new experiment in “community funded reporting” for San Francisco and the Bay Area. The project, hosted by the Center for Media Change and funded by the Knight Foundation, is an attempt to invent a new sort of commons collaboration and marketplace for serious journalism. David Cohn is the founder of Spot.us.
Here’s how it works. The site invites the public to submit “tips” about potentially good stories, and registered freelance journalists can submit story “pitches.” Visitors to the site can then pledge money (tax-deducibly!) to see a particular story reported, written and published. Once the pledges for a given story reach the target sum – most seem to range from $500 to $1,500 – the pledges are called in and the story is assigned to a reporter. Spot.us editors oversee its completion and quality.
Among the current pitches seeking adequate funding:
- “How is the recession hitting the SF sex industry?” ($380 raised toward the $500 goal)
- “Will Oakland survive the next earthquake?” (Only $50 raised.)
- “The Flow of Energy in the Bay” (Where does the electricity in your house come from? At what cost environmentally, economically and socially? And who reaps the profits?) ($125 raised toward a $1,500 goal)
Visitors to the site can also read stories that have already been written. Some of the more interesting ones explore the life cycle of human waste in the Bay area; the effects of local cement plants on global warming; the safety of beaches following an oil tanker spill; and an accuracy review of local political campaign advertisements.
I like how the site identifies the people who have made pledges toward a story, and provides a roster of “almost funded stories” – an inducement to get others to donate. A commercial news organization can buy temporary, exclusive rights to a Spot.us story, in which case donations are refunded to the donors. Otherwise, Spot.us stories are made available through a Creative Commons license.
LittleSis and Spot.us – two great experiments in crowd-driven citizenship and journalism. May they both live long and prosper!