Sunlight Vanguard

published by Eric Mill on

Recently, I created and launched a new website for the Sunlight Foundation called Scout. It's the product I'm the most proud of building in my 3 years there. It is essentially a search and notification engine for government action. Simple idea, simple presentation, and it's easy to compare to Google Alerts - but there's a lot underneath the hood.

The most fundamental thing it does is search through the full text of legislation in Congress, and all 50 states (using our awe-some Open States project), proposed federal regulations, and speeches made on the floor of Congress - then you can get new matches through RSS or email. You can also follow specific bills, and if you do that, Scout can can get fancy, like alerting you when a vote's coming up, or when anything official at all happens to the bill.

Doesn't it seem surprising that this doesn't exist already? Of course, it does exist - but these kind of features are typically what gets wrapped up into expensive pay services. A couple of Scout's data sources, GovTrack and the Federal Register, also provide free alerts for legislation and regulations, respectively. Scout's goal is to bridge these all together, and it's my belief that there's a large class of professionals, journalists, policy staff, activists, and regular citizens that will use and seriously benefit from this kind of service - and that it can be both professional quality and free. Civic information disparity upsets me.

Though Scout was my idea, our scary effective Policy team's enthusiasm and vision for what it needed to do to support their work was crucial in getting the project going. Sunlight eventually attracted funding specifically to support Scout's development, and by the time we launched, we had actually managed to change major legislation, successfully providing the tip-off to remove an attempt to weaken the FOIA, a foundational law that just celebrated its 46th birthday.

That was satisfying, and dramatic, and perhaps something of that magnitude will be rare. But it's a promising start, and I've been extremely happy with the uptake by users since formally launching at the Personal Democracy Forum. We've got a lot of people signed up and actually using it, and that's really cool.

What I find more exciting is how much we can do to make it better. The bulk of the development time was nailing down and polishing the user experience, and now that that's staying put for a while, we can concentrate on simply adding all sorts of new information, and really making it shine. There's a lot do beyond text searching; by the end of the year, I hope to make the connections between laws and regulations so smooth as to enable the kind of research that professionals are used to paying a law firm a lot of money for. It'll be a lot of fun.