Multimedia content producer discusses new open source technology, Sunlight Live

by Dana Liebelson
Sep 28, 2010 in Specialized Topics

In February, the U.S.-based Sunlight Foundation launched an interactive investigative reporting platform that incorporates live streaming video, research, blogging and social networking to report on government in Washington, D.C. The platform, dubbed “Sunlight Live," has already received a Knight-Batten Award for Innovations in Journalism. At the awards ceremony this month, the Sunlight Foundation pledged to use the prize money to make Sunlight Live an open source platform, making the technology accessible to journalists and citizens worldwide.

Sunlight Live provides data-centric coverage by connecting live events to research and public engagement. When used at a forum with business lobbyists, for example, a multimedia data stream displayed lobbyists' campaign contributions and previous government positions on the same page as the video broadcast.

Noah Kunin, multimedia content producer at the Sunlight Foundation (pictured left), spoke with IJNet about the inspiration for the project and where Sunlight Live is headed next.

IJNet: How do you think technology like Sunlight Live promotes government accountability? How does the technology feed back into the Sunlight Foundation’s goal of openness and transparency?

Noah Kunin: Sunlight Live promotes government accountability by preventing false or misleading narratives from gaining steam. We do this by 'datajamming' the event - interrupting the narrative with contextual data on the influences behind the speakers, primary documents and the best social content from around the web. Powerful political figures can get away with fudging the truth because fact checking takes time. Sunlight Live's datajamming injects an appropriate level of incredulousness into the discourse.

Sunlight Live is an important part of our overall mission. We've always said that public needs to be redefined as online but that's only a useful platitude if the information being put online takes months to get there. We need this information in real time. I often share the quote, "A lie is halfway around the world before the truth gets its pants on." Sunlight Live is one way to start giving truth a head start.

How did the idea of Sunlight Live come to life? What gap was the Sunlight Foundation aiming to fill?

We were deeply concerned that the influences behind the health care debate [over President Obama's health care plan] were not being revealed.

What kind of reporting or research goes into each event?

First, we look at what data is available. Campaign contributions, lobbying contacts, personal financial disclosures--these are the kind of datasets we often look at first. We then determine what's going to be relevant. For example, during a financial reform debate, it's important to see how much the staff of large financial institutions like Goldman Sachs [a global investment firm] had given to the lawmakers debating the bill.

In addition, we all do a large amount of background research on the event so we can quickly answer questions asked on our live blog. This involves collecting a large amount of links to primary documents.

Could you talk a little bit about widgets? I read in March that you were considering embeddable widgets to allow anyone to pull data about government-members in real time. Is this completed or in the works?

Yep, Politiwidgets is live at http://politiwidgets.com/! Sunlight Live can also be 'white-labeled' and embedded into other sites. During the business lobbyist meeting, we partnered with the National Journal [an American political magazine]. The communities of both Sunlight and the National Journal were having the same shared live experience across the web. This also allowed us to pull in an experienced National Journal reporter into a live blog with our own investigative journalists.

What sort of reader and reporter input are you planning to implement in the future? Is this a technology you could see being used on a global scale through international media organizations?

Sunlight Live is still very much an alpha piece of software - not even beta! We've committed to making major improvements and even turning the code into an open source platform. That way anyone can deploy the same technologies and add their own value to live events. This expansion will also add significant improvements to the user interface, presentation and feature set. Subscribe to the RSS feed for the Sunlight blog for updates on our development process.