Sunlight Sunset

Micah Sifry responds to the news that the Sunlight Foundation is winding down.


  • Yesterday afternoon, Mike Klein, the longtime board chairman and co-founder of the Sunlight Foundation, posted a mournful note. Having spent the summer looking for a new executive director who could “shape a coherent, forward-thinking strategy to maximize the Foundation’s impact,” he announced that the search had failed. Instead of reopening it, the board decided to look for an allied organization to merge with, in the hopes of maintaining Sunlight’s institutional knowledge and still advancing its mission of achieving more open and accountable government. Klein also announced that Sunlight would discontinue its tool building and database work, signaling the end of Sunlight Labs, its pioneering technology arm. He also promised it would work to fulfill its existing obligations to funders and partners, like the Bloomberg-funded What Works Cities initiative that relies on Sunlight’s open data policy expertise.

  • The news reverberated across the whole civic tech community, as dozens of Sunlight alumni now working across the field (many of whom are now inside government at places like 18F and the U.S. Digital Service) along with friends and allies took to Twitter to share their pride, grief and regrets, recall Sunlight’s accomplishments and also to question what had happened and even rally to save some of Sunlight’s codebase, like its OpenStates project, from falling by the wayside.

  • Katherine Maher, the executive director of Wikimedia Foundation, called it a “tragic decision.” Mark Cridge, the executive director of mySociety, called it “a blow for all of us.” Code for America founder Jen Pahlka praised Sunlight for giving CfA its first grant and being its fiscal sponsor back in 2010. And Marci Harris, the founder of Popvox, suggested that it should just declare victory, given all the “change & innovation & cooperation & inspiration” it generated.

  • Given the mournful tone of so many comments, Alex Howard, Sunlight’s senior analyst, took to the web to explain that Sunlight was laying off five of its staffers but not shutting down, and that John Wonderlich, its interim executive director, would continue to steward the organization as it navigates the months ahead.

  • Longtime readers of First Post know that Andrew Rasiej (Civic Hall’s founder) and I helped start Sunlight, working with Klein and Ellen Miller, Sunlight’s co-founder and founding executive director, as senior technology advisers from its founding in 2005 through early 2015. (We remain loyally on its “masthead” but have had no real input on its strategy since Miller retired at the end of 2014.) We both took yesterday’s news with heavy hearts. As Klein wrote, “Sunlight successfully catalyzed a movement.” It pushed hard for meaningful government transparency and often won, and when it didn’t, it made sure to set clear and tough standards in order to benchmark real progress against “transparency theater.” It was the first D.C. public interest organization with a full-blown technology lab that at its peak employed roughly 20 developers and designers. It pioneered dozens of innovative web services and apps, vastly opening access to vital government data. It exposed the fact that the federal government’s own tracking of its expenditures was inaccurate to the tune of one trillion three hundred billion dollars, leading to the passage of the DATA Act, and it focused a laser beam on the political power of the top one percent of one percent of campaign donors (roughly 30,000 people who gave $1.5 billion—1/4 of all the money raised by politicians in 2012). It fought successfully to “Let Congress Tweet” and then made sure to expose the embarrassing tweets that politicians tried to hide with its popular Politwoops platform. It wasn’t afraid to attack the Obama administration for failing to live up to its transparency promises, even criticizing other open government groups when they hustled to the Oval Office to give the president a premature award in the hopes that it would shift his administration’s behavior. Its policy arm was consulted often and listened to regularly as Congress, the federal government, and many states and cities began to enact open data legislation and rules. It helped foster a dynamic community of local and international open government geeks through its annual Transparency Camps (the next one is October 14-15 in Cleveland). Perhaps its biggest accomplishment was its success—along with Code for America—in helping to convince the federal government that it was time to modernize its use of technology and the Internet. When the government starts baking your standards into its own work and hiring your best tech people to come and help, that is surely a major victory.

  • If Sunlight did anything wrong, it was because it tried to do too much all at once. But thanks to the unbelievable generosity of Mike Klein, who poured more than $20 million of his own money into Sunlight, and the Omidyar Network, which was its most steadfast long-term funder apart from him, Sunlight got a long run to experiment, iterate, push, and often win.

  • It is also surely true that, as Klein wrote, “the robust maturation of technology over the past decade has—happily but substantially—reduced the urgency of Sunlight’s early role as a leading transparency innovator.” (Translation: lots of other organizations, including investigative reporting shops, are doing great work with tech and data, making Sunlight less of a vital pathbreaker.) That said, there is plenty that civic-minded techies can still do to help improve the functioning of our democracy. We need to find better ways to make decisions together, to listen to and reconcile disparate views, and to make the most basic elements of representative government more inclusive and responsive. With Sunlight stepping back, hopefully others will step up to fill its big shoes.

  • In other civic tech news, here’s Civicist’s senior editor Tom Steinberg explaining why Cass Sunstein’s approach to government transparency isn’t quite what we need.

  • Civic Hall member Rhize, which works with a distributed network of coaches to assist social movements around the world, is releasing a new research report today, titled “The New Global Citizen: Harnessing Youth Leadership to Reshape Civil Society.”

  • Wired’s Andy Greenberg profiles the efforts of Jigsaw (another Civic Hall member org) to use artificial intelligence to battle abusers and trolls online.

  • The FDA has announced a “Naloxone App Competition,” offering $40,000 to spur the “development of a low-cost, scalable, crowd-sourced mobile phone application that helps increase the likelihood that opioid users, their immediate personal networks, and first responders are able to identify and react to an overdose by administering naloxone, a medication that reverses the effects of opioid overdose.” With nearly 2 million Americans abusing or dependent on prescription opioids, drug overdose deaths have tripled since 1999, and many of those deaths might have been avoided if naloxone had been available. On October 19-20, the FDA will hold a two-day code-athon to help registered entrants develop their concepts and prototypes, with the final functional prototype due by Nov. 7.

  • California Forward has launched the “50 State Solution” political reform project, starting with an interactive web portal tracking all the reform efforts taking place across the country at the state level. The project is being led by Chris Gates, who has been CA Fwd’s senior fellow since he stepped down from being the Sunlight Foundation’s executive director this past January.

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