Now that civic data is a normal part of the atmosphere in Chicago, it’s time to start mining private data sources to make automated context a natural part of our Web infolives. By that, I mean the addition of information about a subject that is generated without human intervention. My experience as the person responsible for obtaining civic data at EveryBlock has made me deeply aware of the power and limits of data lookup tools. Now that we have much more lookup tools and data to fill them, especially here in the City of Chicago, it’s time to turn our attention to the Web and the tools we use to extract data from it.
The recent dogged work of the Chicago News Cooperative, with help from Medill Watchdog, dovetails well with automated context. They’ve been publishing a great series of articles this week about lobbying in Illinois:
There’s great reporting in here based, in part, on a review of data. Here’s are some snips:
The investigation showed that the filings frequently are inaccurate. Both lobbyists and their clients are required to disclose their lobbyist-client relationships. In 242 instances, records show, lobbyists reported working for a client but there was no corresponding registration by the client.
Medill Watchdog examined statements of economic interests of public officials, lobbying registrations filed with the City of Chicago, Cook County and the state, and records of state bills and local ordinances. The investigation found 14 elected officials from Cook County alone who, while not lobbyists themselves, are related to or in business with lobbyists.
It’s time to automate some of that review.
Why civic data is not enough
Lobbyist data in Chicago has a great start on automated context. Lobby data was released earlier this year, and then improved when developers asked for better data and the City provided it. Those developers launched an awesome Web site– Chicago Lobbyists— that tracks lobbyists, clients, and projects. Here’s more info on how the Web site works.
This is a great round-trip story: municipality releases data, developers analyze data (for free) and make suggestions, City heeding suggestions and releasing more data, and developers making a great app (again, for free) to view the data.
The next step seems simple– use the site to figure out all the big money relationships inside and outside government. But that didn’t happen. According to the data, $11,422,846 was paid to lobbyists working to influence the City in 2010. While that’s a lot of money, I do not believe that is the sum total of money involved in influencing the actions of a $6 billion operation. That doesn’t pass the sniff test, and the CNC articles this week show the nature of that failed sniff. There’s much, much more to be had.
My assumption is that there are dozens of other positions, arrangements, and relationships that are factored into the true picture of lobbying. I am not in any way suggesting that these are nefarious, illegal, or improper. In fact, I find them to be absolutely normal. I just also find them to be hard to find. The CNC/ Medill stories of this week illustrate this very well– they did a ton of shoe-leather reporting to get insights. The thing is that we should be able to piggyback on that work with better tools.
For example this snip from a CNC story:, “the investigation found 14 elected officials from Cook County alone who, while not lobbyists themselves, are related to or in business with lobbyists.”
How did they find that out? Probably by painstakingly reviewing the economic interest disclosure forms and googling the shit out of the businesses listed. In most cases, online biographies of lobbyists played little to no role in pulling these pieces together.
As is typical in an industry where relationships matter, the people who do (and make) the most have to day the least about their work. The firm with the highest billings in 2010, Illinois Governmental Consulting Group LLC., has a one-page Web site with no feature/ benefit text and just emails to the principals. Why? if you don’t know who these people are already, they probably don’t really want to hear from you. To mailto me is to love me.
In situations like this, it’s not impossible to pull together a reverese-engineered bio for the principals, and picking up some noun clauses in the process. For instance, he was appointed to the Western Illinois University Board of Trustees. While we’re at it, here’s a mother-lode of George Ryan appointments to various state boards from 2001, including the Western Illinois appointment for Brunsvold. Someone needs to slurp that up and put it to use.
Automatically-generated entity associations
On the other end of the biographical info spectrum, I found that large law firms— with their sophisticated in-house marketing and PR teams— are much more forthcoming about what noun clauses matter in the world of Chicago lobbying. By doing entity extraction on the biographies of lobbyists, we can be armed with fodder for understanding and connections. With information from these tent-pole sources like law firm Web sites, we can apply that info to the other people in the industry.
Open Calais is one of many tools and companies that are focused on entity extraction and compiling knowledge on a topic.
Here’s an example from the bio of Edward J. Kus, one of the lobbyists found in the data (with some initial research)
- Executive Director of the Mayor’s Zoning Reform Commission
- Zoning Administrator of the City of Chicago
- First Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Planning and Development
- McCormick Place Expansion: the Chicago Tribune has a hundred or so stories about this from the 1980s and early 90s in their archive
- Navy Pier Redevelopment
- Central Station
- Lakefront Millennium Park
- Chicago Plan Commission: homepage of the Commission has a list of all current members as well as searchable PDFs of all meetings (with members, matters, and outcomes) going back to December 2009. Plethora of info. Includes vote counts, recusals, etc.
- City of Chicago Zoning Board of Appeals
- City Council Committee on Zoning
- City of Chicago Department of Planning and Development
- City of Chicago Department of Zoning.
- Group Home Task Force
- Open Space Committee
- Landscape Advisory Executive Committee
- Greater North Michigan Avenue Association
- Leading Lawyer in Illinois
So even though Kus only received $19,000 in 2010 from lobbying (the top person, Brunsvold, pulled in $978,000), the 17 initial-caps entities can be whacked against all other names in the data to tease out connections. The best thing is that all of this could be automated. I would like to see a computer program that does entity extraction of each of these noun clauses and drill automatically into each of them, slurping up all of the people and putting it into an understandable chart. Again, all of this is fine– it’s nice to make money, it’s nice to have responsible civic voices helping us make decisions, and it’s nice to know everything one needs to know in order to understand.
This info can also be pulled into the Chicago Lobbyists Web site as context in and of itself. These two pages on the Internet: the ChicagoLobbyists page for a registered lobbyist and the Mayer Brown bio for the same person don’t even know about each other. No link, no unique user ID, no way to know that they are the same person, even though the content is in many ways complementary. Here’s an example:
Connections in plain sight, rendered in plain text on the Internet, there for the making.
Marrying databases and the importance of standards
The public data environment is maturing quickly; moving from one in which very little data is available to one in which different units of government publish different datasets about essentially the same thing. For example, the Cook County Clerk has their Lobbyists Online lookup tool which contains lots of information about many of the same people who are in the City data. The Cook County system publishes the contact information (including email and cell phone number) as well as what looks like a copy of the building access ID photo for every registered lobbyist. The City data does not include this info, but since they publish the name and firm, it is possible to marry this info into one record.
We’ve been successful in changing policy when it comes to the publication of data, but there has not been much corresponding thought on standards. Much of this has to do with the vagaries of existing software and the idiosyncrasies of intake forms. Meantime, there is lots of opportunity for private developers to pull together all of this info into a useful (and valuable) repository.
Compiling language about the thing itself
One cool thing about marketing and public relations text is that it allows one to leverage the curation of others. Here’s a snip from a lobbyist bio on the DLA Piper Web site:
In 2011, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that a zoning deal concerning plans to develop the old Lincoln Park Hospital site in Chicago had won initial approval from the Chicago Plan Commission despite aldermanic opposition. Reporter Dave Roeder noted, “As a historical note, this project is the third example of a zoning deal winning initial approval despite aldermanic opposition. The only other recent case was the proposal, yet unrealized, for a Chicago Children’s Museum in Grant Park. The zoning lawyer for that deal and the Lincoln Park Hospital site is Ted Novak of the firm DLA Piper. Other zoning lawyers probably wish he would bottle his secrets and sell them.”
Telling language. How people describe their actions is almost always telling. That’s probably why the ones with the most work say the fewest things.
Another example is Shoefsky & Froelich’s pretty enlightening definition of lobbyng:
Our firm represents private-sector entities seeking rights, licenses and privileges from government boards, commissions, and legislatures. We develop government relations strategies, draft and engage in hearings on petitions for relief from government regulations, and negotiate public sector/private sector partnerships. In addition, a substantial element of this practice area includes pursuing zoning changes and other relief required for development
Here’s Mayer Brown’s mega-page explaining, in detail, the actions they take on behalf of their government relations clients.
Meanwhile, watching entities from the DLA Piper bio reffed above, I saw “Lambda Alpha International, Ely Chapter (an honorary Land Economics Society)”. Their Web site has a basic info on the field of land economics. They’ve also got 10 years of their newsletter archived. My guess is that contains some good info about tactics and methods for lobbying, written in the congratulatory prose of a trade publication. Good stuff.
If one wants to understand lobbying, one has to have this stuff in front of them. Making tools that finds and monitors these sources would be valuable.
There’s money in this
It’s not hard to think about commercial uses for such a tool. Opposition research for political candidates and competitive intelligence for the lobbyists themselves are just some of the uses that come to mind. There’s lots of great work going on in civic data, especially in Chicago. I’d love to see venture capital follow some of this important work. I think we’d all benefit.