This post was written more than four years ago. The world changes fast, and the information, conclusions, or attributions may or may not still be accurate. Check the sources and links, and email me if you have any questions.

A campaign contribution is the largest impact one can make in influencing the outcome of an election.

Many states receive and release electronic, machine-readable campaign finance data. But for the states still relying on paper filings, state and local candidates should voluntarily release machine-readable electronic campaign finance data in the interests of accessibility, transparency, and accountability.


Every candidate for public office has to comply with campaign finance disclosure laws in their state or local jurisdiction. Increasingly, jurisdictions are moving from paper filing to electronic filing, which is easier to read, manage, disseminate, and universally accessible for visually impaired citizens. Some states even provide analytical tools to the public so curious minds, journalists, and researchers can perform advanced searching, mapping, graphing, or better yet: they can download the raw data to use their own tools.

To talk about open campaign finance data, one must first talk about the concept of ‘open data’ and why it’s important in the scope of electoral politics.

Open Data

Many things in our daily lives are powered by government, academic, and institutional data that’s been opened up for everyone to use. Power gets to your home because government agencies have provided utility companies with detailed geographical maps for utility lines. You can check the traffic on your morning commute because your state highway agency releases live subsurface vehicle count data to Google, and when you decide to take mass transit instead, you can open up one of the dozen apps in the App Store that all use cool and unique ways to help you catch a bus or train using live data from local transit agencies. If you’re having a medical procedure done, you can visit the Health and Human Services website and see which hospitals are the cheapest and have the highest quality and safety measures. And you didn’t die today because medical scientists share, publish, and mutually validate learnings and findings. And need I mention one of the largest, most expensive open data projects in the world? Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites.

open-data-executive-order
Open data is so important that President Obama issued an executive order this year directing all federal agencies to open their data to make government more open and accessible, build a 21st century digital government, and better engage with entrepreneurs and innovators to leverage government data. It’s a great read. Some federal agencies have even held challenges to get developers and engineers to solve problems using open government data, and many technology solutions that have been built for these challenges have become companies that are creating jobs, powered by open data. States around the country have followed suit, building open data portals.

The City of Chicago has released an unprecedented amount of public data. One of their data streams — a list of every vehicle towed by the city — prompted me to create TowText, a service you can sign up for that will send you a text message within 15 minutes of your car being towed, along with the location and phone number of where your car is.  I used my free time, it’s useful for citizens, and it didn’t cost government a dime. Privacy isn’t lost, as the data feed doesn’t contain any personal information.  Similarly, in Minneapolis, I discovered that restaurant health inspection data wasn’t searchable online, so I made an app that lets city residents search that data online. When the federal government was having a hard time getting veterans to use their new veteran job bank, I made an app using government data that alerts veterans to new jobs matching their skills.

There are countless developers and researchers who want to explore and build unique, out-of-the-box apps that solve real-life problems. And the influence of money in politics is one of those problems.

Money and Politics

As to campaign finance data, many will agree that the influence of money in politics on a federal level is distressing. We’ve seen anonymous PACs, shell corporations, limitless contributions, ‘corporations are people’ and situations where contributions come before or after an important vote, creating potential conflicts of interest.

But it’s not just about tracking down the big money players, it’s also about deciding as a voter and a potential campaign contributor where you want your money to go to make the best and biggest impact.  I would never give to a candidate if I knew they were spending tens of thousands of dollars on IT services I knew they could get for free, for example. To me, that’s a poor investment and an indicator that they’re not going to be responsible in office. Likewise, I don’t give to non-profits that don’t have their public tax return or certified audit posted on their website. I’m not cool with a charity paying their directors $500k+ and spending $15 million of contributions at big-time New York telemarketing firms.

The FEC receives and distributes all campaign finance data for federal-level candidates on their website in an electronic, machine-readable format. That means that anyone can go to the FEC website, load up a report, and download the data as a CSV or Excel file.  This, combined with other data, has powered a number of amazing tools: OpenSecrets.org, Follow the Unlimited Money, Foreign Lobbying Influence Tracker, Influence Explorer, and more.

I want to highlight some amazing things that happened during the 2012 presidential election on the topic of campaign finance data analysis.

OpenSecrets.org made easy-to-read lists to analyze outside spending. In this image, you can see the top Koch Industries PAC contributions:

koch-data

The New York Times actually made a live database of outside spending, and they opened up the data for any other researchers or journalists to use:

new-york-times-spending

Here’s a very cool timeline of campaign contributions and expenditures for Obama and Romney:

obama-romney-nyt

Finally, here’s a really interesting mash-up that the Center for Responsive Politics made that combines FEC contribution data with lobbying data to identify the complex web of backroom deals:

john boehner

Here’s the problem: this data is not open and accessible in many statewide races and the vast majority of municipal races.  Are smaller races immune to monetary influence, corruption, and backroom deals? Do donors to municipal candidates not deserve to see how their money is being spent? Absolutely not.

campaign-finance-report

In state and local races, if you’re a researcher, developer, or journalist, what you see above is the data that you get from the local campaign finance jurisdiction. Sometimes it’s typed letters on a page, which are equally useless. If you want anything better, you have to hope the candidate releases the information in an Excel file or CSV on a voluntary basis.

You can’t take a sheet of paper and identify trends, map out contributors, analyze big influencers, and scrutinize spending.

Former United States Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra ran for Virginia Lt. Governor this year, and he decided to voluntarily release all of his campaign contributions and expenditures as an open, accessible, and machine readable CSV (Comma Separated Values) and JSON files. Here’s what that looks like:

chopra-csv

That means that in a matter of minutes, I can load this data into a database and run queries to answer questions I might have. Say, for example, how many of his donors are in San Francisco?

chopra-san-francisco

Huh, a lot of CEOs! I wonder how many CEOs gave to him throughout the country, and what cities those are in, sorted by city?

chopra-ceo

How much is he spending on staffers per month?

chopra-staffers

Imagine this as a simple-to-use app for regular ol’ voters to use.  Might I find stuff that doesn’t look good for Chopra? Yup. Might I also find stuff that looks great for him? Absolutely.

Data is data — it tells a story without any bias.

If campaign finance reporting agencies required electronic disclosures (like the FEC and many states already do) and released those disclosures back to the public in electronic machine-readable format, we’d have a much bigger insight into how political campaigns are run in our home states and hometowns.

Until then, campaigns should voluntarily release their campaign finance data in electronic, accessible, and machine-readable formats. Candidates, don’t know how? Just put an Excel file on your website. That’ll do. And no, it doesn’t give opponents an advantage.

Releasing data in a more accessible format doesn’t release more information, it just releases better, more accurate information of the same data you’re already required to report. And you don’t want the public, voters, researchers, and journalists using bad data and misinformation to judge you and your campaign, do you?