The Accountability Project, a new resource for public data

By Jennifer LaFleur and Cole Goins

Categories

Data Journalism

Searching across public data sets can be arduous, particularly on deadline. But any good journalist knows that finding threads among campaign finance data, property records, business ownership and other sources can yield important stories about conflicts of interest, outsized influence and other issues that warrant deeper public scrutiny.

That’s why the Investigative Reporting Workshop created The Accountability Project.

Seeing a need to streamline public data sets, we built The Accountability Project to put much of that data in one place so journalists, researchers and others could search across otherwise siloed data.

We started with data related to money in politics and have added data on nonprofits, voters, business licensees and public employees. We will continue to expand into other categories with data that focuses on people, organizations or their locations.

The project was conceived by the late David Donald, former data editor for the Investigative Reporting Workshop. In his original proposal for the project, Donald stressed the need for data among accountability professionals.

“The key is the link among databases that provide the connections that allow us to hold the powerful accountable for their decisions and actions,” he wrote.

The Accountability Project team is working to make his idea a reality and build it into a robust search site. So far, we’ve uploaded hundreds of databases, accounting for more than 400 million records.

Our lead developer, Jacob Fenton, brings experience in large database projects, including those at the Sunlight Foundation and as a consultant on ProPublica’s NonProfit Explorer.

“Holding those in power accountable — in government and in the private sector — is essential to the health of any democracy,” said Charles Lewis, executive editor for the Investigative Reporting Workshop. “As the great lawyer and later Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis noted in 1913, ‘Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.’ ”

IRW envisions this project will be a collaboration among journalists, researchers, public interest groups and concerned citizens.

“We’re proud of this project and we hope it will help all of those groups hold the powerful accountable,” Lewis said.

HOW TO USE THE ACCOUNTABILITY PROJECT

First, we recommend signing up for an account here. While much of the data is available without an account, logging in gives you access to everything on the site, including voter registration data and property records.

The Accountability Project can be a powerful tool for getting background information on particular individuals and addresses. One of the most useful searches is to run a single name or address on the name search page. You will get a list of hits for that name or address in every dataset we have. From there, you can start digging deeper.

Our data includes federal campaign finance data and campaign finance data from about 35 states. We also have data on nonprofits nationwide, voter registration in a number of states and property ownership. And, we’re collecting other state-level data such as business licenses, public employees and public salary data. Learn more about the different datasets we have here.

Go to our Tips page for more on searching the site or check out our browse datasets option to see what’s available. We’re continuing to add data and would love your suggestions for data that would be helpful for your work.

WE WANT YOUR STORY PITCHES

The Investigative Reporting Workshop is accepting pitches for stories that draw from our data. We’re seeking story ideas that rely on public accountability data and use The Accountability Project to help investigate a particular topic.

You can submit your story ideas here. IRW staff will review all submissions and select at least three ideas that will receive the following:

  • A stipend to pursue the story. IRW will provide financial stipends for each pitch that is selected. The total stipend may vary, based on the amount of reporting and research required.
  • Editorial support for your story. IRW editors will edit selected story proposals and offer coaching during the reporting process.
  • Publishing and promotion through IRW. Selected stories will be published on investigativereportingworkshop.org. If you already work for a news organization, we are happy to co-publish.

Criteria for story pitches:

  • Our core requirement is that you use The Accountability Project in some way to inform your reporting. Pitches will be weighed based on how you plan to use our site.
  • We’re accepting a wide range of pitches and are agnostic about the topic. Ideally, your story would have an accountability angle and seek to uncover an abuse of power, conflict of interest or injustice.
  • We prefer stories with a text component, but welcome multimedia story pitches as well.

SEND US YOUR QUESTIONS AND FEEDBACK

We would love to hear your questions or feedback. We want suggestions about how to improve the site and for data we should add. We also are looking for collaborators who want to help with the project. For more information, contact us at accountability@irworkshop.org.

The Investigative Reporting Workshop is an independent, nonprofit newsroom based at American University that produces stories aimed at holding the powerful accountable. We also train student journalists to do investigative reporting. The Accountability Project was made possible through a grant from the Reva and David Logan Foundation.